Sconce – Haunted Media


Sconce, Jeffrey.  Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.  2000.  Publisher’s page.

I did a silly thing.  I read this book in a hurry because I needed to return it to the library, but it turns out it wasn’t even a book I had on any of my lists.  And this was after I’d mentioned to my advisor that I was reading the book for my exam with him.  The importance of organizing your books well, kids!  But I wanted to get back into the swing of writing up books on here, and it was a really interesting read, so I bent the rules a bit for today.  Filing this under both media studies and posthumanism because, as the title suggests, it straddles that divide pretty neatly.  Now that I’ve gone and read it, I almost want to try to find a way to squeeze it into a list.  For now, though, you can just read my thoughts on it below!

This book was the good kind of trip to read.  Coming out of Duke Press, I was bracing myself for rhetorical and linguistic gymnastics that give one headaches, but I was pleasantly surprised here.  The whole book reads like somebody coming up to you with a gleam in their eye after spending the day in an archive and saying, “You will never BELIEVE the kind of weird shit I just found.”  The book is broadly about the intersections between electric media and discourses of supernatural or otherworldly presence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with telegraph and going all the way up through digital media.  What this means is that we get all sorts of crazy anecdotes about ghostly voices coming in over the radio, people shooting their TVs because they thought they were possessed, and so on.  It makes every chapter entertaining, at the very least, and I can honestly say I’ve never known as much about Spiritualism as I do now.

There are a few key points of overlap between electricity and the spirit world, in Sconce’s argument.  First is the largely invisible workings of electricity.  That an unseen substance could transmit voices, for example, seemed to lend an air of the Weird to things like the telegraph and wireless.  Electric media seemed to partake of the otherworldly in the public imaginary, lending themselves to narratives of ghostliness.  Second was the set of liquid metaphors used to talk about electricity from early on.  The idea of flows and streams of electricity made it uniquely suited to related concepts of transition and transmutation, making the boundary between the empirical world and the spiritual one particularly permeable.  Taken together, this meant that electric media invited an understanding that positioned them as the conduits between the mundane and supernal worlds.

While this imagination persists across the 20th century, Sconce draws our attention to the ways in which it metamorphosed across different moments in media history.  While the point-to-point communication of the telegraph meant it was imagined in Spiritualist discourse as a means of communicating with specific ghostly individuals – Ben Franklin apparently invented the spirit telegraph from the afterlife and used it to communicate with the living – this stream turned into a vast ocean with the advent of the wireless.  Similarly, whereas users of the wireless in pre-network broadcast days imagined themselves as lone wanderers on the electric sea of ghostly static, this sea was soon caught in the net of state control and corporate profit as the radio networks came into existence.  Television’s addition of a visual element to the auditory seascape, and the simultaneous enclosure of it within a cabinet, meant that it was a kind of mirror world, a reality that existed in parallel to our own, with its own continuities.  And once computers came along, you too could enter this world – or get pulled into it against your will.  Over the course of the 20th century, then, we see a transition from the spiritual world being largely cut off from the real world, accessible only through discrete lines of communication, to a more expansive imagination of it, slowly taking shape into something concrete and, at last, accessible.

Sconce backs up these claims throughout with relevant and entertaining citations from both New Age religious discourse and speculative fiction as it developed.  We get lots of sensationalist newspaper articles, Spiritualist memoirs, Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and so on.  His archive comes from both believers and skeptics, scientists and spiritualists.  One of the interesting side notes to come out of this was the outsize role women played in Spiritualism.  While it was as a result of patriarchal scientific discourse on their “feminine sensitivity” to electromagnetism and womanly electricity that they overwhelmingly occupied the position of spiritual medium, Sconce shows that they were able to use this positioning to speak (via the voices of ghosts) on contemporary women’s issues.  This would eventually fade, unfortunately, as Spiritualism was derided by the more patriarchal discourse of scientific rationality.  Nevertheless, it was a fascinating part of Sconce’s archive.  This being media studies in the 1990s, we of course also see Max Headroom.  Seriously, why was everyone in media studies so obsessed with Max Headroom?

One thing that never quite clicked into place for me is what he meant by “presence.”  Despite its place in the title, and despite its frequent invocation throughout the text, I never quite felt like I had a firm grasp on what he meant by it.  It may simply have been that electric media allow us to feel that the spiritual world exists/is present, but I often felt like it was being used more broadly.  So the presence of what?  Of the supernatural itself or supernatural phenomena within the mundane world?  Of a specifically mediated relationship to that supernatural plane?  Of the social conditions that produced that relationship?  I was never entirely sure.  Nevertheless, Sconce traces a fascinating relationship between electronic media and our perceptions of the uncanny and otherworldly.  The book does an excellent job, in my opinion, of running through the supernatural side of scientific modernity and its media-historical instantiations, and it’s given me a good amount of food for thought when thinking about the eerie elements in narratives of digital space.


2 thoughts on “Sconce – Haunted Media

  1. What a coincidence – I also just read this as part of my reading list on “hauntology” / media archaeology. If you enjoyed it and wanted to read more, Marina Warner’s “Phantasmagoria” is very similar but more extensive and cites Sconce.


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