Spiritual telegraphs and the technology of Communication: tuning into the electromagnetic Imagination
Part of the series of lectures, "Watch Your Language," at Public Netbase Media-Space! Vienna, April 10, 1997
"Civilization is entirely the product of phonetic literacy. As it dissolves with the electronic revolution, we rediscover a tribal integral awareness that manifests itself in a complete shift in our sensory lives... This new electronic environment itself constitutes an inner trip, collectively, without benefit of drugs. The impulse to use hallucinogens is a kind of empathy with the electronic environment." Marshall McLuhan
Whatever media we are talking about, whether the internet or television or radio, it all rests on two forces: the electricity which powers the thing, and the electromagnetic universe which we exploit in order to produce our mediated world. These two energies are the lifeblood of the media sphere, and superficially, they seem devoid of anything strange or uncanny. But this is not entirely the case. While we take both electricity and electromagnetism for granted, they are actually very strange forces and fields. The more you try to understand the signs behind it, the more you realize how bizarre and counterintuitive they are.
An alternative history of electricity and electromagnetism would start off with alchemy and the way that alchemy informed the initial explorations of electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries. Alchemy derived from the basic idea that matter is alive and that we can, by manipulating matter, nurture it to grow until it produces higher, "spiritual" qualities. The first time that the word "electricity" enters the English language is in a book by an alchemist. Later it is often described in alchemical terms: "the ethereal fire", "the quintessential fire", "the desiderata", or the desired quintessence of matter. The idea in alchemy is that by distilling matter, and changing it and forcing it and fighting it, you will create a spiritual essence. That essence was associated with electricity.
At the same time, electricity was also a conventional object that was exploited for perfectly pragmatic ways as part of the march of Rationalism. The paragon of this approach is Benjamin Franklin, who discovers that lightning is just a natural form of electricity. With this discovery, Franklin not only supposedly invented the lightning rod, but demystified a great symbol of the divine wrath of the gods. It seems historically symbolic that the framer of the American constitution is the one who tames and demystifies this previously heavenly force. There is an epigram on a French bust of Franklin which states: "He wrested the flash of lightning from heaven and the scepter from the tyrants".
Here electricity connects with the idea of political Prometheanism. But despite this famous story, Franklin wasn't actually the first person to come up with a lightning rod. That credit goes to a Moravian named Prokop Divisch, a Premonstratensian monk. In our secret history of electricity, Franklin stands as the exoteric figure of taming electricity, of bringing this mysterious force down to earth in order to exploit it according to a rational calculus of gain. But at the same time, we also have this curious monk, who opens up the esoteric story I am interested in, a story in which electricity is an imponderable fluid that symbolizes and expresses cosmic powers.
The esoteric charge of electricity draws directly from the German philosophy of nature. The German historican Ernst Benz draws our attention to a group he calls the "Electrical Theologians", whose most notable member was Friedrich Christopher Oetinger. Oetinger was interested in a puzzle embedded in the Book of Genesis, which tells us that on the first day of Creation, God said "Let there be light" – and there was light. A few days later, God creates the sun, the moon, and the stars. But that leaves a question: What is this first light? Oetinger believed that it was the "electrical fire", which enters the primal watery chaos and sparks it with life, giving it the ability to produce forms and to produce life. Once the sun and the moon come, the electrical fire disappears into matter and only in special conditions, like in a lightning storm, can we actually confront this essence.
More than a theological curiosity, Oetinger's notion is powerful because it engenders the earth with immanent power. It contradicts the idea that life descends only from above, and that we are simply cut-out little clay creatures that get life directly from God. Instead, the very material of nature has within it an animist forces that produces form and life. The connection between animism and electricity goes back to the very beginning, and we see it today with the organic metaphors that often creep up around electrical technology. It comes from this intuition that electricity has something to do with vitalism. This is way electricity and electrical metaphors play such a profound role in the great battle between a vitalist perspective – which we find, for example, in Chinese medicine – and the sort of reductionist and mechanist perspective enshrined in Western allopathic medicine.
Oetinger's thought also creates a different image of humanity along with its vital image of earth. Humans are no longer simply rational spirits inhabiting otherwise static hunks of matter. When God scrapes up the dust to create Adam, the dust itself is already alive, already animated. Along with our rational souls, we also have an electrical soul. This is an important distinction: there is a realm of human spirit that is not associated with reason but vital being.
As such, it is not surprising that electricity plays a profound role in the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment rationalism. This is symbolically significant as well, because electricity is the discovery of the Enlightenment. Moreover, electrical power has enabled us to transform nature on a scale unimaginable to people two hundred years ago. And yet electricity retains an undercurrent of mystical reaction, a call toward those things and ideas chased into the shadows by Enlightenment rationalism.
The father of the psycho-electromagnetic unconscious is Franz Mesmer, who is known alternately as one of the greatest charlatans of all time or the man who kick-started psychoanalysis. In the late 18th century, in Vienna, Mesmer wrote his dissertation on astrology and the question of how
the planets influence the world. In order to explain this influence in terms that would accord with Enlightenment materialism, Mesmer posits an ether-like substance that he calls the fluidium. This is that substance that allows the moon to tug the tides and allows Venus and Mars to influence our souls. The fluidium also responds to a problem in Newton: how can we account for gravity, which is essentially action at a distance, on a cosmic scale? By Mesmer's time, physicists had already posited the existence of the ether, an invisible fluid medium of communication. Mesmer simply attached astrological influence to this fluid.
What is interesting about the concept of the ether is that, even though it manifests the materialist desire to fill the world with matter, by its very insubstantial nature, it carries occult ideas along with it. Even Newton, who was the grand rationalist (and an alchemist on the side), held that the ether, which allowed the planets to communicate with each other, was a living substance, a sort of entity. This entity is not just a matter of ontology, but of communication, a communication of bodies and energy. When he came to describe the aspect of ourselves that responds to the fluidium, Mesmer settled on the term animal magnetism, a term he took from the works of the hermetic Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Mesmer wrote:
"All bodies are a magnet, capable of communicating this magnetic principle. This fluid permeates everything and can be stored up and concentrated like the electric fluid and it acts at a distance."
Mesmer used magnets in his healing practice to re-align the living field of the body. Soon Mesmer discovered that he didn't really need magnets to do his work, which is also where he starts looking like a charlatan kook. Mesmer felt that he could magnetize people simply by passing his hands over them. Though this method sounds goofy, contemporary accounts make it very clear that he catalyzed extraordinary effects. Mesmer was not putting people into a hypnotic trance, but instead was creating a convulsive climax, a la Wilhelm Reich, a release that he thought would lead to healing by re-aligning the energetic flows of the body.
In psychoanalytic terms, Mesmer was exploiting the mechanisms of hypnotism and suggestion, using his evidently powerful charisma to engage people who, at least, are willing to let themselves be so engaged. In that sense, animal magnetism is a function of the imagination, of the suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, Mesmer's techniques undoubtedly produced effects and healed people. So why didn’t doctors and philosophers pursue this occult imagination, this imagination that heals? Unfortunately, that approach wouldn't fit into the emerging paradigms of Enlightenment medicine at that time, and so Mesmer was branded a crank.
In the early 19th century, Mesmerists started to use hypnotic trance to explore a strange new continent: the unconscious. What happens when we the rational consciousness is suspended, and yet all sorts of intelligent things happen? We think that the practice of probing someone's unconscious begins with Freud. But throughout the 19th century, investigators throughout America and Europe explored the recesses of mind methodically, though not quite according to scientific method. Here is the key: the magnetic paradigm opens up the unconscious in all its uncanny and spectral power. When he was developing his early theories of the unconscious tradition, Freud took full advantage of this tradition. And that's why, in addition the famous homeostatic steam-engine metaphors, Freud also used electrical metaphors to describe the body-mind.
As the 19th century wore on, Mesmerism waned in popularity in Britain and in Europe, but it became a huge hit in America. American mesmerists investigated altered states of consciousness within a scientific frame of mind, but they kept stumbling across strange things like clairvoyance or the telepathy – phenomena which even Freud acknowledged, at least initially, but were subsequently swept under the hypnotic carpet. Nonetheless, these phenomena persist, if only as wishes. When Upton Sinclair wrote "Mental Radio", a book about telepathy, in the early 20th century, he was expressing how often our communication technologies are driven by the unconscious desire to achieve telepathic communion, not in a mystic sense, but as an immediate exchange of information and perceptions.
The mesmerists were operating under the aegis of rationalism, doing psychoanalysis before the name. As their practice grew, their work became less about healing the body, and more about exploring the strange dimensions of mind. Mesmerism thus introduced a hands-on craft of introspection, a
pragmatic tactics for generating altered states of consciousness that could be framed in a language divorced from mysticism. The mesmerists wanted to say, "No. This is something scientific."
The emergence of the telegraph in the middle of the 19th century links the magnetic imaginary to information technology. Before the telegraph, the idea of communicating through electricity doesn't exist. This is key. The telegraph is the first device that transforms electricity into information, which is why the symbolic register of the telegraph is so fascinating. The famous first telegraph message, sent in 1847 from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., was, "What hath God wrought". What God wrought, or what man wrought in his god-aping mode, was the information age.
This new invention is immediately the site of the utopian imagination and its close cousin, hype. Here is a great quotation from a congressman arguing that Congress should provide Morse with start-up money. (Of course, the fellow in question has already secretly invested in Morse's operation). Here is his claim:
"The influence of this invention of the political, social and commercial relations of the people of this widely extended country will of itself amount to a revolution unsurpassed in world range by any discover that has been made in the arts and sciences. Space will be, to all practical purposes of information, annihilated between the states of the Union and also between the individual citizens thereof."
For internet watchers, this is strikingly familiar rhetoric. Indeed, almost every new electronic media that is developed following the telegraph triggers this same utopian dream, the same language of millennial paradise. (Who wants to shrink to one point anyway?). But because electricity also carried with it the ghost of vitalism, the electrical utopia was also considered to be alive. In 1873, the president of Western Union called the telegraph "the nervous system of the commercial system". Today, these organic metaphors are trotted out to support the view that technology is an organic force that is evolving according to natural selection. The Darwinian march has somehow merged with the technosphere, which I suppose means that we are supposed to stop struggling for a more human world and simply let these new creatures emerge. A few years after Morse's first cable was strung up, two sisters in upstate New York snatched back these electrical metaphors into the world of the occult. When the young Fox sisters started hearing mysterious knocking sounds in their house, it is said, they decided to talk back to the restless spirits. Their little chat sparked Spiritualism, which went on to become one of the most remarkable religious phenomena of the 19th century, an extremely popular "scientific" religion that penetrated the upper echelons of society and the educated elite.
Marshall McLuhan believed that electrical media "outers" the human nervous system, unfolding the subject into an electromagnetic relay station. This was not simply an act of smoothly integrating the individual into the expanding networks of communication and capital. As McLuhan put it, "To put ones nerves outside is to initiate a situation, if not a concept, of dread”. This dread is, of course, one of the central objects of religion, particularly as it relates to the limits of identity and the question of death. Though spiritualism was, in comparison with conventional religion, materialistic and quasi-scientific, the movement could be seen as an essentially religious answer to the dread produced by the new electrical situation of "outering" the nervous system through electric wires and, later, the electromagnetic spectrum.
In the late 19th century, a great deal of technology was developed, and "science" achieved its modern form. As such, the new experts and elites were charged with communicating the new explanatory regime to ordinary people, with making people excited, and lending the emerging knowledge class power. This created the spectacular phenomenon of public science demonstrations. After concocting something in their labs, electrical engineers would present
public spectacles to demonstrate the power that these new technologies had. Despite their official naturalism, they knew that these uncanny electrical associations were lurking in the public mind. And so they exploited the language and performative practices of the occult in order to get across their non-occult technologies. Nikola Tesla would finish his gigs by saturating himself with thousands of volts of electricity. He would sit there with flames flashing out of his fingers, and speak mysteriously through the electric gloom.
Within the larger context that surrounded these events, occult and mystical ideas became a mask of power, one which paradoxically redeploys the mystifying tendencies of occult charlatans in a new "scientific" language. These public demonstrations captured the magical imagination and then reappropriated its power for the elite, saying in effect, "We are actually the only ones how have the power. All those other people are charlatans and kooks. We are the ones you can rely on". To this day, the occult remains science's tawdry twin, a shadowy fusion of popular perceptions and anomalous phenomena that continue to evade the grid of scientific explanations. And you find this shadow falling across the history of every new technology that comes along: daguerreotypes, phonographs, the telephone, the radio.
In McLuhan's terms, electronic media fire up pre-modern or magical perceptions by technologically stretching the boundaries of the self. Of course, the world still rolls on in its disenchanted way. These uncanny perceptions become routinized, commercialized, and swallowed up as business as usual. But you can still tune in to these perceptions by looking in the margins of culture, where metaphysical and occult motifs are woven into the mundane or secular phenomena of technological life. The paranoiacs of the 20th century, for example, have given us myths (and insights) into modes of technological mind control that very much revise ancient demonic motifs of possession and control. Paranoia is the demonic uncanny of a globalized information world, and paranoid conspiracy theories must be wrestled with in any deep engagement with the dynamics of the global information society. Here is what McLuhan said about the world he glimpsed through his own speculative imagination:
"As our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. Unless we are aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of drums, total interdependence and superimposed co-existence. Terror is the normal state of any oral society (like the new post-literate society), for in it, everything affects everything all the time."