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Haunted Media: Electronic Presence From Telegraphy to Television

Author: Jeffrey Sconce
Publisher: Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000
Review Published: March 2004

 REVIEW 1: Dougie Bicket

Many of us might be surprised at the extent to which our grandparents and great-grandparents -- including many of those of the highest social station -- believed passionately in the power of Spiritualism and the paranormal. An intervening century of scientific rationalism has blinded many of us to the vital role that spiritualism played in helping our forebears to relate to and cope with the scientific marvels of the dawning electronic age, complete with its telegraph, then telephone, wireless radio, and television. There’s a missing link in our popular understanding of how this transition came to pass. What stories did we tell to ourselves to help "naturalize" what initially seemed to be quite unnatural phenomena? What metaphors do we employ to make it all make sense? This is a topic, in the broadest sense, that has been touched on by many scholars in relation to media ecology -- James Carey (1989), Marshall McLuhan (1964), and Jean Baudrillard (1994) all come immediately to mind. More contemporary explorations of this topic -- often shackled to poststructural theories and the technology of the internet -- have been provided by scholars such as Sherry Turkle (1995) and popular writers such as William Gibson (1984). Now Jeffrey Sconce adds his own historical perspective on the process with his book, Haunted Media.

Sconce, an associate professor at the School of Communication at Northwestern University, has written a fascinating account of the human experience of adopting and accepting electronic media. Haunted Media is part of a series, Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural Power, and is best considered in the context of this wide-ranging series that examines multiple aspects of the relationships among electronic media and visual culture. It is a well-indexed, well-referenced work, with extensive and, for the most part, helpful footnotes for each chapter.

Sconce deals with the issues of mysticism, electricity, and telegraphy, and their interconnections with popular culture. This topic has also been covered in depth in John Peters’ book, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (1999). Like Peters, Sconce’s work balances broad historical sweeps with enlightening insights. However, while Peters’ arguments are framed by the great thinkers of western culture, from Socrates to William James, Sconce spends more time focusing on the contemporary popular over the past 160 years -- fictional stories and reports from popular magazines, in large part. Sconce’s approach, at least prior to his final chapter, is less philosophical, more prosaic.

Sconce early on quotes Carey, who argues in "Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph," that the telegraph’s importance was not only that it served as a new tool of commerce and "the material foundation for a new communications network," but also that it was a new "thing to think with, an agency for the alteration of ideas" (qtd. in Sconce, p. 27). This is really the springboard for Sconce’s core thesis, where he elaborates on the theme of "things to think with" employed in the popular culture at various stages of media development. He argues for a vibrant and robust connection between the doctrines of early Spiritualism and a powerful strand of popular narrative that, even today, emphasizes the disembodied, otherworldly "powers" of electronic telecommunications. Although, as Sconce points out, the very idea of a "spiritual telegraph" will likely seem ludicrous today -- and of course we have to question why that is -- he holds that
    the contemporary legacy of the Spiritualists and their magical technology can be found in sites as diverse as the "psychic friends" network, Baudrillard’s landscape of the hyperreal, and Hollywood’s current tales of virtual reality come alive and run amok. A century and a half after Kate Fox’s initial exchange over a ghostly wire, American culture remains intrigued by the capacity of electronic media to create sovereign yet displaced, absent, and parallel worlds. (25)
Sconce therefore describes his project as "a cultural history of electronic presence, an interpretive examination of the fields of electronic fiction socially generated around telecommunications technologies" (6). He is interested in the development and mutation, over a century and a half, of popular perceptions and speculation about media spirituality and electronic presence, from the dawn of the electronic era right up to the present day. He asks, "Why is it, after 150 years of electronic communication, we still so often ascribe mystical powers to what are ultimately very material technologies?" (6).

Sconce dwells on the "living" quality of new media technologies. With each new technology -- telegraphy, telephony, wireless radio and television broadcasting, and now the internet -- such "liveness" becomes the foundation for how we adopt and domesticate that technology. His journey begins (in chapter 1) with an examination of the "spiritual telegraph" as the first popular response to the electronic medium of telegraphy (12). From this vantage point Sconce charts the shifts in dominant metaphors used to characterize the changing technologies of communication and their impacts on conceptions of electronic "presence." For example, he notes that the introduction of wireless radio communication in the early 20th century "heralded a radically different vision of electronic presence, one that presented an entirely new metaphor of liquidity in telecommunications by replacing the concept of the individualized 'stream' with that of the vast etheric 'ocean'" (14). In turning his attention to the historical development of wireless -- what he calls "this more melancholy and alienating sense of presence" -- in chapter 2, he focuses on both the contemporary era’s transformations toward modernity and the contemporary tales that intricately linked wireless technology with the concepts of death and afterlife in the popular imagination.

Another trope Sconce employs is that of "presence," which, like that of "liveness," can illustrate with clarity some of the broad shifts in cultural forms associated with both new technologies and with societal uses and applications of these technologies. The following passage, dealing with the dawn of broadcasting, illustrates this nicely:
    In the gradual transition from point-to-point communication to mass broadcasting, presence became less a function of engaging an extraordinary yet fleeting entity across frontiers of time and space and instead assumed the form of an all-enveloping force occupying the ether. No longer a mere conduit for extraordinary exchange, electrical presence became instead an extraordinary world in and of itself. With the rise of the networks, "liveness" in radio and television meant joining a vast invisible audience as it occupied the shared, electronically generated worlds of national programming. (11)
Chapter 3 goes over this ground -- "a pivotal period of transition in radio history" -- more comprehensively, detailing this new sense of electronic presence emerging at the time the networks were beginning to consolidate their power in America. The chapter is also significant in that it gives the well-worn tale of the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast a fresh take, as an example of the popular imagining of the specifically alien "alien ether." Chapter 4 shifts the focus to the early 1960s’ world of television in America -- another turn in the dominant perception of media presence, linked to the popular imagining of a new medium that, by the early 1960s, was increasingly being portrayed "as generating its own self-contained world" (17). And yet this amazing new visual world very quickly became associated, in the minds of America's cultural elites, with a debasement of culture itself. As Sconce reminds us, television became linked to a sense of void, a new "electronic 'nowhere'" -- a "vast wasteland," in the words of then-FCC Commissioner Newton Minow. Yet this was only one more stage in our shifting perceptions of electronic media.

Sconce argues in the final chapter that postmodernism is the force delivering the latest popular form of imagined "presence," providing much the same sort of human function as past electronic metaphors provided at the apogee of previous electronic media technologies (such as the telegraph, radio, and television). In fact, Sconce considers whether postmodern theory is "itself simply another in a long series of occult fantasies inspired by electronic media" (170).

We certainly see an extensive review of relevant postmodern theory to buttress some of Sconce’s arguments, although a broader sample of sources might have served to provide a fuller picture of recent developments. There is little recourse to the professional and trade press accessed earlier in the book. Whereas the earlier chapters rely on evidence gleaned in large part from primary sources (newspapers, magazines, etc.), the use of such sources in the final chapter is limited to a handful of fictional stories from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as some comments on Gibson’s germinal 1984 cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. It could have been informative to have rounded out his presentation of evidence by drawing on more primary material from the 1990s equivalents of journals such as Popular Science Monthly, Argonaut and Scribner’s Magazine. (Wired magazine would be an obvious candidate in this regard.) While this oversight is a little baffling, given the range and extent of primary sources cited in the earlier chapters, it is more an irritation than anything else. It doesn’t seriously undercut the broad strategic approach of the book.

In other respects, the final chapter is enlightening and provides an effective capstone to the work. In particular, it provides a very useful context to much recent discussion about how we understand cyberspace. And ultimately, having demonstrated that he knows his stuff when it comes to postmodern theory, Sconce undercuts many of its assumptions, at least insofar as it relates to his central thesis. It is here that Sconce reaffirms his humanism, insisting on the continuance of an essential human subjectivity and positioning current discourses of the decentered subject in a virtual world as merely the latest in a long line of electronic mediated fantasies. Invoking Gibson’s concept of cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination," he asks us to consider, "is cyberspace a consensual hallucination, or is it the concept of cyberspace that is the consensual hallucination?" (204). He makes it clear that he believes it is the latter.

I really like what Sconce has done here. He just about pulls off his big task -- which is to use his examination of shifting narratives of electronic presence to provide "an important sense of historical context for what many take to be a wholly ‘postmodern’ debate" (20). From this point of view, his determinedly historical contextualization of the discourses of postmodernism within wider cultural discourses about electronic media works well, and this makes Haunted Media a valuable contribution to the debate. By offering his fresh take on current postmodern debates he surely risked making more than a few academic enemies. Nevertheless, it’s a risk I am glad he took.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Carey, J. (1989). Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dougie Bicket:
Dougie Bicket is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at SUNY College of Arts and Sciences, Geneseo. His research interests include the historical interrelationship of media technology, society, and public policy in North America and Europe; and the role of media and technology in the social construction of reality. He reviewed Technology and In/equality: Questioning the Information Society for RCCS.  <bicket@geneseo.edu>

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