Commendatori's Blog

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Media – Mediums Relationship

Posted by commendatori on July 28, 2008

Critics interested in the histories of modernity, media, and spirituality would be advised to consult Helen Sword’s and Jeffrey Sconce’s recent works on these subjects. Both works represent what has become the most intellectually fruitful strain of cultural studies: the historically rich, thick-descriptive approach favored by anthropology and the new historicists. Sword’s book sets out to prove a thesis that deconstructs, using the example of modernist spiritualism, the high/low divide in culture studies. While numerous studies have shown how modernist writers borrowed from popular culture to enliven their writings, Sword argues something a bit more radical: “Like modernist literature, popular spiritualism sought to embrace both authority and iconoclasm, both tradition and innovation, both continuity and fragmentation, both the elitist mystique of high culture and the messy vitality of popular culture”(x). Thus, instead of arguing that certain modernists such as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.D., or William Butler Yeats were either “credulous” or “adventurous” enough to partake of spiritualism, Sword reads contemporary spiritualist texts to show how, at times, they embodied the very experimental ideals of the avant-garde. William Butler Yeats, for instance, “sought in the netherworld of the séance room not easy enlightenment but a confirmation of his belief in the slipperiness of human consciousness, the precariousness of language, and the overwhelming complexity of modern life”(104). Sword’s citations range from primary spiritualist texts to the musings of modernist writers to popular secondary sources. She even devotes, for instance, a chapter to discussing library cataloguing practices with respect to spiritualist texts allegedly dictated by famous dead authors. The resulting mosaic provides valuable information that amuses and surprises as much as it informs.

My only concern about Sword’s approach involves its lack of attention to the relationship between “mediums” and “media.” Aside from occasional allusions to an Ouija board being like a “radio set,” this relationship is largely ignored. Not only does the history of 20th-century automation often harken back to the séances of the Victorian period, but Victorian mediums also based their practices on a growing sense that human beings were as much defined by their relationships to machines as in their interactions with one another. Furthermore, media technologies are themselves uncanny in nature, as Jeffrey Sconce argues in his recent book Haunted Media. Such technologies “evoke the supernatural by creating virtual beings that appear to have no physical form”(4) — ghosts, in short. Rather than focusing on spiritualist texts and demonstrating their relevance to modernity, Sconce starts with the technologies which have undisputed modernist credentials and then sounds out their spiritualist qualities. Sconce does rely, however, on what one might call “exceptional” evidence (such as a man who actually shot his television), unique but well-documented instances when the relationships between technology and animated spirituality became excessive. These anecdotes earn their place through the argument that exceptional historical moments represent the eruption of repressed social forces, but are also normalized through Sconce’s wide-ranging and insightful readings of literature, radio-programs, and television shows from the late-nineteenth century onward.
Timothy Materer has observed (in the early 1990s) that spiritualism has been repressed in scholarly accounts of modernity. With the publication of more and more books like Ghostwriting Modernism and Haunted Media, however, it is apparent that this is no longer the case. Instead, both Sword and Sconce demonstrate that not only must we not fail to consider the history of modernist spiritualism, we can not even consider spiritualism to have a marginal relationship to modernity.

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