Technologies of magic
by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
Examining the relationship between technology and magic is potentially stimulating, and there is much of interest in this volume. Unfortunately, in general the essays in it read like a compilation put together after a conference, with the editors' introduction suggesting a consistency that doesn't seem apparent when struggling through the academic prose of the majority of them. The most significant factor uniting them seems to be that all the authors bar one work in Australia, mostly Sydney. Ten papers are grouped into three parts, The Persistence of Magic in Modernity; Ghosts and Their Machines; and New Technologies and Their Doubles, headings that are suitably vague to accommodate the disparate contributions.
The editors begin their introduction with the 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?" They go on to claim that the Enlightenment was supposed to sweep away mysticism and order in a rational system of thought, despite which mystical belief clung on and even prospered by attaching itself to technological developments.
It is a provocative start, but a sweeping one that claims too much, not least by neglecting a consideration of non-technological mystical belief. The Enlightenment certainly swept away much Western superstition but it could not do so completely, though it made the job of those anti-rational forces harder. As the development of Christian apologetics suggest, it obliged them to accommodate to rationalism by arguing that their beliefs have scientific underpinnings (Creationism is a good example), even if they bend the principles of scientific procedure in the process. A glance at a newspaper will reveal that forces of mysticism are active in many fields around the world, often with deleterious social consequences.
The editors then quote Wittgenstein making the point that when Sir James Frazer uses the word 'ghost' he understands the 'superstition' it represents "mythology is deposited in our language." That words with mystical connotations persist is not surprising, and their existence clearly reflects a continued understanding of what they represent, whether the things they denote are real or not. But we cannot assume that the word is used in the same way across all cultures at all times, that Frazer sitting in his study at Trinity College, Cambridge, possessed the same understanding of ghosts that a non-literate tribe might. For a book that is so concerned about nuances of cultural difference, this represents a flattening of meanings into a homogeneous concept when, in reality, those meanings will change according to a society's attitudes to the afterlife and its relationship with the dead. Co-editor John Potts's reference to Chinese hungry ghosts, "an inflection of the ghost-idea not found in contemporary Western cultures", is a case in point.
The notion of 'magic' is a slippery one and can encourage waffle when it is not pinned down sufficiently, a common fault on display here. Among the best efforts are Scott McQuire, on Victorian - the period, not the place - electrification and how it tapped into feelings of modernity, in particular how the environment was perceived in a new light (literally), while generating more primal sensations of awe; and Potts on ghosts as 'an idea that does cultural work', by which he means the ways in which the idea of the ghost satisfies social needs. Potts's assessment of the way in which ghost groups have promoted themselves and their ideas on the internet is interesting, but overall his chapter picks up themes that have been covered more fully in Houran and Lange's edited collection Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (McFarland, 2001). It is also surprising to find no reference to Technopagans, a subculture mentioned by Emily D Edwards in Metaphysical Media: The Occult Experience in Popular Culture (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), anywhere in the book.
Patricia Pringle's chapter is a fascinating examination of stage magic and how it betrays 19th-century preoccupations with transformations and with the ways in which space was used and time perceived. Andrew Murphie too is concerned with transformation, magic as performance with practical effects that meld technology and magic, particularly regarding cognitive science (though I wouldn't fancy experiencing "the exfoliation of the brain in space"). Chris Chesher reworks invocation, using an occult term in a technological context. He shows how this "call to power" transcends domains and still has relevance in secular as well as religious situations. Annette Hamilton's Freudian meander finds an uncanny component to our relationship with our possessions. She must have seen my CD collection.
Stephen Muecke on "new ethnography" emphasises contingency, in the sense of hidden and multiple causes, in looking at different cultures. His relativism is a useful counter to colonialist-inflected anthropology, but what he does not consider, in his attempt to move away from a "colonialist story of historical seriality"modernity, enlightenmentmysticism is why for example some aboriginal hunters are happy to drive 4x4 vehicles and American Indians make vast profits running casinos on reservation land rather than maintaining a traditional way of life. Is this a process of ideological hegemony at work (in the sense that the ruling ideology is the ideology of the ruling classes) or is it people evaluating contrasting ways of life and finding aspects of one preferable to the other? They are willing to subscribe to values other than those originating from their own customs, and to claim that all aspects of all cultures are equal is patronising, at its worst excusing injustices (clitoridectomy, suttee and honour killing to name a few).
The ways in which conventional science can struggle with phenomena that fall outside its narrow range is looked at by Anne Cranny-Francis. She describes what she calls the "modest witness", the archetypal scientist following the tenets of the institutionally-recognised scientific method and reaching valid conclusions as a result. She shows what happens when someone who subscribes to this definition of modesty is put in the uncomfortable position of encountering a ghost, in this case a biologist who meets a phantom motorcyclist while driving along an Essex road. Suffering what is clearly cognitive dissonance, the witness eventually claims that she never saw the ghost, even though her travelling companion could see that she had been shaken by the event, a result that the latter finds irrational. In effect the scientist edits her reality for political reasons, because the paranormal is deemed unacceptable by science, and to acknowledge the reality of the encounter would render her unfit as a modest witness. Unfortunately a promising start moves on to discuss 'subaltern practices and multiple knowledges' and 'science and technology: territorializing discourse vs embodied practice', while having a pop at Englishness en route, as if Englishness, particularly of the middle-class, middle-aged white male variety that Cranny-Francis so disparages, was an insensitive monolithic entity in stark opposition to what she romantically sees as the openness of marginalised (ie oppressed) groups to such 'immodest' experiences.
Rachel Moore's paper contains a wide range of film examples to show how the cinematic experience of watching people in love can engender a mythic quality. But her claim that "Touch of Evil is the raunchiest film Welles, or perhaps anyone else, ever made" begs for Moore to actually define what she means by raunch, and which bits she thinks are raunchy - surely not Welles himself, or Dietrich, or Heston's moustache. In an ambience that is overwhelmingly - if exhilaratingly - sleazy, it is hard to fathom what Moore has in mind. The final piece in the book, by Edward Scheer, looks at Stelarc, an Australian performance artist who combines technology and ritual in ever-more elaborate choreography. Here is someone - along with, it should be added, white, male, middle-class, middle-aged Englishman Kevin 'Captain Cyborg' Warwick, though he does it in a less flamboyant way - prepared to explore the implications of our technological future and push at the boundaries of what it is to be human.