haunted machines & spooky ideologies

esther milne reviews potts & scheer’s technologies of magic

TECHNOLOGIES OF MAGIC BEGINS WITH A SIMPLE YET INTRIGUING QUESTION: “WHY IS IT THAT MANY TECHNOLOGIES, PARTICULARLY MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES, CONTINUE TO BE SHROUDED IN A MYSTIQUE, PRESERVING FORMS OF MAGICAL BELIEF WITHIN RATIONALLY ORDERED SOCIETIES?”
Lantern of Fear, Gulielmo Jacobo ’s Gravesande,<BR />Physices Elementa Mathematica, Geneva, 1748, from Eyes, Lies & Illusions, ACMI”></p>
<p class=Lantern of Fear, Gulielmo Jacobo ’s Gravesande,
Physices Elementa Mathematica, Geneva, 1748, from Eyes, Lies & Illusions, ACMI

Advertising has long been a site for such expressions represented in, for example, Bell’s 1915 “weavers of speech” advertisement depicting an operator working “upon the magic looms of the Bell System” to weave “millions of messages into a marvellous fabric.” Or consider the 1950s “Spellbound” campaign from American company Ampex, promising users of its new audio system “an exquisite pleasure and a dangerous revelation.” More recently, figures of enchantment appear throughout the advertising of Motorola, Sony and Nokia (Sony’s 1990s “Magic Link” PDA, as just one example; advertisements cited are available at: www.adflip.com). And for its unfettered celebration of technology’s sublime power, it’s hard to ignore how Time magazine announced its front cover 2006 Person of the Year through that uber media of illusion and fantasy: the mirror.

This edited collection is a valuable addition to research examining the material and symbolic interconnections between magic and technology or what John Potts calls “media mysticism.” Although the contributors deal with practices of magic in diverse ways, the editors outline a common definition: “the key notion is the kind of performativity which arises from an agent of transformation whose effects are evident but whose operations are not apparent.” For Andrew Murphie, in his elegant chapter, “‘Brain-magic’: figures of the brain, technology and magic”, transformation and performance are crucial for understanding how power links the cultural fields of magic and technology: “magic has always been about power—over life and death and illness, over transformation, over appearance and disappearance…this is what technology is increasingly about as well.” Rather than viewing the cultural logic of magic as antithetical to science, Murphie explores the “indissoluble binding between magic and technology.”

The paradoxical yet symbiotic relation between magic and technology is a central preoccupation of the book. In her chapter on “the modest witness”, Anne Cranny-Francis revisits Donna Haraway’s work on the disinterested observer within scientific discovery. Cranny-Francis recounts a compelling ‘urban-legendesque’ story of two women who, while driving at night, encounter a threatening ghostly vision manifesting as a tailgating motor bike audible within their car and clearly visible through their rear vision mirror. However, when the passenger rolls down her window to remonstrate with the motorcyclist the vehicle ‘disappears’ to return only when the two glance back through their mirror. What’s interesting for Cranny-Francis is the subsequent discussion in which the passenger, a science PhD candidate, denies having had the experience. As a scientist, the woman refuses to believe in anything that is not explicable through logical and rational means. The driver then suggests that “perhaps science simply does not know yet how to describe such a phenomenon” to which the scientist replies “no, I simply do not accept what I saw; I did not see it.” This story illustrates the inherent ideological tensions of the objective observer. The scientist, argues Cranny-Francis, “could not afford to be known as someone who believes in things that are outside mainstream scientific thought. If she is positioned outside that mainstream, she will not be acceptable as a modest witness and so will be unacceptable as a scientist.”

Also exploring the unacknowledged ‘bridging’ of mysticism and science, are John Potts’ contribution on the contemporary ghost and Chris Chesher’s piece about the function of invocation within technological practice. For Potts, ghost discourse—including “academic parasychological research initiatives”, anecdotal reports from ghost hunters, and web sites selling ‘ghost detectors’—demonstrates the persistence “of mystical belief in societies founded on rationalist principles.” Modernity, he suggests, has never been fully “disenchanted” since “enchantment”, understood as a form of “belief in the supernatural”, continues to flourish “even in highly technologised cultures.” Arguing for the enchantment of Western modernity, Potts joins writers such as Simon During (Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic, Cambridge, Harvard, 2002) and Alex Owen (The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004). In his chapter on “The Muse and the Electronic Invocator”, Chesher develops his theory of the invocation. This “cultural form” he explains is “a call to a power outside ordinary fields of perception and action for immediate assistance, guidance or support.” The invocation operates through a diverse range of institutional and technological settings: “magicians invoke spirits; priests invoke the name of Christ; artists invoke a Muse”; and “a computer program invokes a subroutine.” Although careful to distinguish between these divergent socio-technical fields, Chesher argues that the “remarkable regularity” with which the invocation appears “undermines the myth” that there exist “complete revolutions in human affairs.”

For some contributors, the “strange borderland” between rationality and mysticism is underpinned by “the technological uncanny”: those voices, histories and practices that are rendered unfamiliar by powers articulated through specific economic and political registers. Scott McQuire, for example, traces elements of Freud’s theory of the uncanny, where “inanimate objects seem to come to life” within the development of spectacular electrical illumination. In particular, McQuire explains how “the fundamental spatial ambivalence of electrification” enables new architectural forms and urban configurations in which “architecture seems to come alive.” Similarly, Annette Hamilton discovers uncanny relations operating between “humans and their things.” While “our discarded objects mock us in the garbage dumps of the world”, new technologies promise the opportunity to develop a “more care-full and respectful” structure of ethics. And in Stephen Muecke’s astute critique of the ethnographic ahistorical address, situated voices of the ethnographic subject are repressed. In response, Muecke calls for a “new ethnographic practice” that rejects “the positivism of an anthropological practice which constructs another society as unified ‘over there’… in which ‘they’ remain superstitious, about, say, an eclipse of the sun while ‘I’ am necessarily beyond that historical stage.”

Technologies of Magic is both timely and historical: cogent in its contemporary observations and historically enchanting.

John Potts and Edward Scheer eds, Technologies of Magic: A cultural study of ghosts, machines and the uncanny Sydney: Power Publications, 2006. Available through Power Publications (www.arts.usyd.edu.au/departs/arthistory/power) or Gleebooks (www.gleebooks.com.au).

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 31

© Esther Milne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2007