Spiritualism Through the Screen

Giuseppe Madera

6248 words

48 minutes

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Spiritualism, in its most basic sense, can be defined as the belief that beyond death, the soul, or ‘spirit’ survives and, although on another plane of existence to our own, it may be communed with through mediumship. Mediumship is a ‘gift’ or power, traditionally possessed by women, whose role as a medium would be to provide a line of communication between the living and the dead, usually in order to allow an individual or group to converse with the spirits of loved ones. The medium would often work in the context of a séance (fig.1), wherein interested parties would pay for an ‘audience’ with the medium. Spiritualism as a movement found immense popularity in the 19th century both in America and across the Atlantic in Victorian Britain (Oursler, 2019). While the ideas and schools of thought behind Spiritualism have existed long into our history, it was during this period of immense technological development in Britain and America in the 19th century that a notable relationship between Spiritualism and technology would develop. The phase of industrial revolution which took place during the 19th century brought with it an immense influx of new technologies, from the invention of photography in 1826 (as attributed to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce), to the invention of the electromagnetic telegram in 1844 (Sconce, 2000), right through to the latter half of the century, by which time the first telephone call had been made and electricity had begun to enter the home (Francastel, 2003). As society became increasingly industrialised and new technologies became a part of everyday life, the ever-increasing place in the cultural consciousness that the Spiritualist movement would possess, inevitably led to interaction between the two. Soon enough Spiritualism found both function and metaphor in each new technology of this age.

Spiritualism began as a small American movement, but rapidly grew in popularity across America and travelled back across the Atlantic during Victorian Britain. The beginnings of the movement may be traced back to the night of the 31st of March 1848, in a small cottage in Hydesville, New York. That night, two of the youngest daughters of the houses’ residents, the Fox family (Kate and Margaretta), were experiencing the latest in a series of unexplained rapping and knocking sounds that had for years plagued not just the Fox family but also the property’s previous tenants. Kate, the youngest, implored the mysterious source of the knocking sound to “do as I do”, and sure enough, after clapping three times, three knocks were heard in response, and thus opened a conversation with the unseen that would grip the cultural interest and inspire replication for years to come. In the following days the Fox sisters continued communicating with these presumed ‘spirits’, first observing them being able to count to ten when asked, to correctly identify the age of the sisters, and even to begin answering yes/no questions, with a single tap for yes, and a double tap for no. Within a week 500 people had reportedly visited the Fox house to hear this ghostly exchange, (Sconce, 2000), and soon enough the Fox sisters and their line of communication with the spirit world would be a topic of national conversation. At some point the eldest sister Leah Fox began to charge money to interested members of the public in exchange for a chance to witness this phenomenon for themselves, National interest became international, as word spread across the Atlantic, sweeping the western world into a fascination with the possibility of communing with unseen spirits that would come to define an era.

After these beginnings, the Spiritualist movement would find such popularity that its central ideas and practises inevitably mingled with, and interacted with, almost all facets of culture and 19th century life. At the same time, the rapid expansion of new technology and cultural transformations brought about by the industrial revolution also permeated all aspects of everyday life. The practices of the medium were by no means separate from or unaffected by these vast cultural shifts brought on by industrialisation. Technology had truly begun to transform the everyday lives of all members of society on a scale and speed that had not been seen before. As 19th century society reckoned with these new technologies and forms of media entering both their everyday lives and their cultural consciousness, the practice of mediumship grew in significance, too. The mediumistic potentials of many new technologies would become the topic of much exploration as Spiritualism grew ever popular, with new technologies informing and interacting with the idea of mediumship in many instances, throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

Figure 1: A Seánce as depicted in the 1922 film 'Dr. Mabuse the Gambler'

Now, more than a century later, society is again experiencing another rapid expansion of new technologies, this time in the form of the digital and information age, and with the increasing possibilities the world is witnessing as we settle into the internet age. Spiritualism has persisted in the cultural consciousness, rising and falling in relevance since its peak in the 19th century, but still holding steady to this day and is increasingly finding its place in today’s technologies. By examining Spiritualism’s relationship with 19th century technology perhaps one may better understand the ways in which Spiritualism exists within, and interacts with, the modern technology of today’s internet age.

The following article will discuss the relationship between the Spiritualist movement and the technological innovations of the era, by focussing on two specific technologies and their interaction with Spiritualism. It will begin with an exploration of the invention of the camera and the subsequent trend of ‘spirit photography’, then move on to the invention of the electromagnetic Telegraph, discussing the shifts in the cultural consciousness which this technology brought about, and finally comparing its impact to the emerging role of the spirit medium within the Spiritualist movement. Through drawing connections between the emergence of these technology and the rise of the Spiritualist movement in the 19th century, I hope to demonstrate how Spiritualism and technology interacted and paralleled changes in the cultural consciousness1. To expand on this discussion, the role of electricity as both a metaphor and a facilitator of Spiritualism will also be called upon. The article will also consider how the relationships between Spiritualism and a technology may provide us with insight into contemporary relationships between Spiritualism and technologies of the modern age, and the potential development of their interactions in the age of the internet.

The following writing does not seek to prove nor disprove any of the trends and phenomena of Spiritualism mentioned, nor discuss the ethics of these. A position of sympathetic neutrality will be taken when discussing Spiritualism, in order to allow a deeper examination of its relationship with society and technology, and to inform an analysis of Spiritualism and technology in today’s digital age.

The Magic Medium: 'Spirit Photography' in the 19th Century.

Few technical innovations had such an impact on the public psyche and its relationship with the spirit as the invention of photography did (Sontag, 1977) .With the birth of photography humans had created the ability to capture a moment in time in a way never possible before. The collecting of images, previously only accessible to the upper classes through the expensive commission of painting or the meticulous work of the sculptor, (Berger, 1972) was now accessible to the less economically privileged members of society. As photography parlours began to pop up on the Victorian high street in Britain and in towns and cities across America, moments of time were no longer condemned to transience and could be captured and frozen for keeping memories ‘alive’ thereafter. The ability to capture an impression of a moment or a loved one in such a way, suspended in time and as an eternal physicality, albeit one separate from the actual event or person, had an air of the supernatural from the outset. The ability to preserve a person’s exact likeness meant that, in many ways, photography had exceeded the limitations of mortality, and so naturally it is in this newfound magical image of immortality that Victorians embraced the photographic medium. The potential of this ability to preserve the likeness of a loved one beyond their death in a photograph came to fruition in post-mortem photography. The desire to preserve a loved one’s likeness after their passing is something that has existed long into human history, from ancient death masks to the ancient Egyptian practice of mumification. A fascination with ancient Egyptian spiritual beliefs and practices is perhaps interestingly something that was extremely popular amongst Victorian elite, and especially in many occult circles and with the prominent occult thinkers of the time (Warner, 2013).

The capturing of a person’s image itself alluded to a separation between the physical body and the unseen spirit or soul in way that previously could not be achieved in paintings, for example. In photographs a person’s exact likeness could exist in separation from their physical body or our kinetic memory of them, and in this way photographs possessed an almost totemic quality, their physicality an externalisation of our memory of a person and of the subject itself, with a stillness previously only observed in the dead. The camera could capture the physicality of the dead before the body degraded and make ghosts of the living, before they had passed, in the same way that Egyptians had a fascination with the preservation of the body in preparation for the afterlife. Early photography as a technology mirrors the Spiritualism movement’s ideologies of mediumship and magic as a tool to connect one to the dead. The camera itself acting as a ‘medium’ to link the living to the spirit world after death.

The mystic quality of the photograph was soon called into scrutiny again with the arrival of ‘spirit photography’. This new novelty was dominating the public interest and was even considered by some as one of the first instances of mass media culture (Oursler, 2019). Spirit photographers claimed that the apparatus of the camera was able to capture not just the physical but also the supernatural, such as the spirits of the dead, in its inner workings, and to capture their presence even when the human eye could not. One of the first photographers to pioneer this mystical ability of the photographic medium was William H. Mumler in the United States (fig.2), who is generally considered the first spirit photographer. In around 1861 Mumler, having taken a self-portrait, observed a ghostly white blur sitting on his knee in the photograph, which he promptly identified as a young relative of his who had passed 12 years prior (Warner, 2006). Mumler was not the last to interpret such blurs and smudges in their photographs as hints of the otherworldly, soon a whole culture of ‘spirit photography’ sprung up both in America and across the Atlantic in Victorian Britain (Taggart, 2019).

Figure 2: An example of Mumler's work, wherein a ghostly figure has been 'exposed' behind the subject, c.1870

In ‘spirit photography’ parlours, customers would be photographed to find themselves surrounded by the spectral figures of presumed loved ones, once the image had been developed. To the people of Victorian society, to whom the technology of photography must have already been fantastical, and to who would have had little knowledge of the inner workings of a camera and how it could produce a photograph, these supernatural images would certainly have appeared to be plausible depictions of spirits, now made possible through the wonders of technology.

‘Spirit photography’ may have been a novelty in Victorian society, but by no means did this discount its scientific credibility. The blurs and figures found in the photographs, rather than being considered technological inadequacies of the camera, were to many, hints that the camera possessed mediumship abilities that transcended the human ability to detect these ghostly entities. Many prominent scientific figures showed interest in the possibilities of ‘spirit photography’, considering the possibility that these spirits may have existed long undiscovered, only hidden to us by the limitations of the human eye. While this may seem at odds with the rationality of the increasingly industrial society at the time, Marina Warner, in her exploration of the supernatural in the cultural conscious Phantasmagoria (Warner, 2006) posits that it may have in fact been because of ‘spirit photography’s’ advent at a time of great scientific discovery that plausibility was lent to these claims. Warner notes that optical technologies that already expand the faculty of the human eye, such as microscopes and telescopes, had already allowed us “visions that bodily eyes could not gain unassisted” (2006, p.223), it is perhaps understandable then, that to the average person in the 19th century, who would have little understanding of the scientific workings of the camera, that the capturing of spirits may be another fallibility of the human eye that this new technology was not bound by.

Furthermore, the nature of photography as a scientific technology lent itself to a trust in the medium, “It did not have consciousness, and acted mechanically, objectively, and independent from the mind of its user” (Warner, 2006, p. 11). The knowledge that this machine possessed no spirit itself meant that the spirits captured by it must of course be external and thus genuine. However, by presenting photography as a technology capable of new scientific discovery, Mumler by no means stripped the spirit photograph of its mystical qualities. In fact, by claiming the camera could capture the unseen Mumler had imbued photography with a magical, spiritual status (Oursler, 2019), thereby creating a clear link between Spiritualism and technology.

The relationship between the photographic medium as a scientific technology, and the credibility that this affords it, may be interesting to consider in today’s digital age. While the spirit photographers of the 19th century would had to have gone to great efforts to fake the apparitions in their photographs, using methods such as double exposures and by tampering with the apparatus of the camera itself, within the technology of the 21st century it is easier than ever to manipulate photography digitally. 21st century technology, including photo editing software like Photoshop allows an image to be manipulated long after its capture. And whilst 19th and early 20th century manipulation of photography required the expertise of a professional photographer, the accessibility of both photography and photo editing software today allows both professionals and amateurs to manipulate photographs. In a similar way to how Victorian spirit photographers purposefully exposed the unseen in their images, 21st century photo manipulation is more focused on adding elements that aren’t actually present at the time of capture. Tony Oursler (2019) in his essay Notes on Mysticism and Visual Transects (2019), which was published as a preface to Shannon Taggart’s photo book on Spiritualist communities Séance, (Taggart, 2019) notes that before digital photographic manipulation technologies existed, The Victorian manipulation of photographs involved in ‘spirit photography’ allowed us to “Track the beliefs and desires of society at the moment of their creation, as well as our fantasies of the technological possibilities” (Oursler, 2019). The Victorian audience wanted to see spirits of their deceased loved ones in these images, so these photographic anomalies were naturally promoted as spirits to meet this societal desire. In Oursler’s suggestion that the manipulation of photography is an indicator of societal desires, one may then assume that the peak in popularity of ‘spirit photography’ in the 19th and early 20th century indicates that current photographic manipulation speaks to a different societal desire in the 21st century.

Whilst in the 19th century photography was a means to either preserve or, catch glimpses of the dead, in the 21st century we no longer have this same need or desire for preservation. Instead, we live in the age of an oversaturation of images, where one can see loved ones dead or alive at the touch of a button with modern digital technologies such as social media, videography, and an unlimited online capacity for photographic and video storage. This allows the image of loved ones to be immortal on the web; their social media profiles and videos of them, kinetic and ever ‘alive’. Facebook even automatically memorialises profiles of the dead – preserved forever on the internet. Modern 21st century technologies have certainly made the Victorian desire to preserve the likeness of the dead more accessible and easier; which poses the question that if it is not preservation of the dead that we seek now, then what is the current purpose of photographic manipulation, and what can it tell us of our societal desires and the Spiritualistic views in the 21st century?

In today’s digital age it is almost too easy to achieve seemingly supernatural effects, with as little as a photo editing application on a smartphone. This is exemplified in the playfulness of the Tik Tok2 ‘ghost photoshoot’ trend of 2020, (fig. 2) whereby users would photograph themselves cloaked in white sheets and a pair of sunglasses, with some even digitally removing their protruding legs to create a comical ghostly effect. In the 21st century, with the invention of the camera phone, cameras became more portable and accessible to the masses. Unlike in the 19th century, the possibilities of modern photo manipulation are well known by the majority of society. The ease with which 21st century technology has facilitated photographic manipulation means that the creation of a ‘ghost’ photograph is no longer a technological wonder, as it was in Victorian society, but is still an entertaining activity for an internet trend.

Figure 3: Screenshot of a 'ghost photoshoot' Tik Tok, 2020

As a result of the newfound photographic accessibility provided by 21st century technology, we are no longer being sold photography as a product in the way that the spiritual photographers of the Victorian times were able to sell their photographs. Instead, photography in the 21st century is increasingly used as a means to advertise us as another product. This concurs with Debord’s theory in The Society of the Spectacle, that more often in today’s society the photograph is a tool for the media to create the capitalist spectacle, which establishes a false version of reality in order to sell a product (Debord, 1967). In retrospect, 19th century spirit photographers could be described as exploiting the ‘magical’ possibilities of the photographic medium in order to profiteer from those with spiritual beliefs. In the same way that modern consumerism exploits advancements in photo editing technology to persuade the consumer into believing in the attainability of the idealised capitalist spectacle.

In today’s digital age, the speculative realities created through photographic technology are no longer spiritual ones but capitalist ones. For example, the extreme digital manipulation of bodies in 21st century photography has led to the desire of an unattainable beauty standard amongst many. Just as the ‘spirit photography’ of the 19th century promised the ability to capture what society desired at the time, a glimpse of the spiritual only made tangible through photography, the unattainable material ideals which can be seen in 21st century desires are achieved only in the manipulated images of our capitalist culture, and not reality. The 19th century and 21st century desires expressed through photographic manipulation are both indicative of the individualistic values of each society. ‘spirit photography’ was an expression of the individualistic demand to connect with loved ones passed, in the same way that modern manipulation of one’s individual image tells of a demand to connect with the idealised version of the body presented to us on social media technology. In this modern separation between the physical body and the idealised version of how a body should look presented to society by the likes of Instagram, echoes of the 19th century creation of the ‘ghost’ through photographic technology are felt.

Furthermore, one could interpret Oursler’s (2019) argument as posing ‘spirit photography’ as a specific response to an emerging technology. Oursler (2019) describes the response to new technology as a “collective ritual to determine each medium’s potential” (Oursler, 2019, p.13). Photography as a new technology made 19th century society reconsider its cultural relationship to the image and the spirit. Therefore the way in which society tested the potentials of this new medium was by exploring this very question of its spiritual potential (Oursler, 2019). If one is to maintain that the reckoning of each new technology is essentially “self-referential”, as Oursler (2019) describes, then it could be that 19th century technology’s relationship with Spiritualism was due specifically to the impact that the camera as a new technology had on cultural ideas of the spirit. Again the 21st century equivalent of this may be in our relationship/reckoning, not with the spirit, but with the body, a relationship brought about by the oversaturation of manipulated photography of the body in the digital age.

A Tale of Two Mediums- Spiritualism and the Emergence of the two Telegraphs.

Though perhaps the first major new technology of the 19th century to intermingle with the Spiritualist movement, photography was by no means the last. At the turn of the century as scientific and industrial expansion persisted, the place of technology within society’s cultural consciousness would again be transformed, this time with the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph. It is during this time of transformation that an interesting parallel can be found with the emergence of this technology and the beginnings of the Spiritualist Movement set in motion by the Fox sisters. Soon, new lines of communication both spiritual and technological would be the topic of international discussion at the beginning of the 20th century.

As discussed previously, the eventful night of the 31st of March 1848 in the Fox household had sparked a movement and established a line of spiritual communication for the Western world. It was however, four years prior, in 1844, that another line of communication had opened to the world with the unveiling of the electromagnetic telegraph line by Samuel Morse (Sconce, 2000). The impact that the telegram as a new technology had on society and culture is hard to overstate. For the first time in history, it was now possible to send messages to one another person, instantaneously, and in the absence of physical bodies. While previous communication through mail would require physical distance to be crossed by man and vehicle, and take weeks to cross the ocean, a message from New York to London could be sent and received in seconds using the telegram. Communications had transcended spatial distance through technology. In his exploration of electronic presence Haunted Media Jeffery Sconce (2000) describes how the telegraph allowed for an unprecedented sense of “disembodied communion” (Sconce, 2000, p. 21). Immediately one can see parallels between this quality of telegraphy and the Spiritualist ideas that entered the societal consciousness soon after it’s invention.

Just as Spiritualism relied on the belief that the spirit may exist separate from the body, through technology, telegraphy made reality the separation of voice (ergo consciousness) from the physical body. The electromagnetic telegraph had surpassed material barriers of distance, while Spiritualism crossed spiritual barriers, both with a shared purpose of communication and connection. Connections between the electromagnetic telegraph as a technological ‘medium’ and Spiritualism’s ‘spirit medium’ did not end there, however. The two mediums would influence one another greatly in the following years. The advent of the electromagnetic telegraph inspired a twin technology within Spiritualism. This was not a technology of sciences but of spirit, the women of Spiritualism who possessed clairvoyant abilities would act as a human embodiment of a ‘spiritual telegraph’ by assuming the role of medium. Medium, in this sense of the word being used to describe a person, who would ‘channel’ the spirits in situations such as séances, in order to provide the living a means of communication with the dead. Spiritualist literature would also borrow from the science of the telegraph to explain the mechanics of various spiritual practises (Sconce, 2000). Spiritualism had found allegory in technology, a relationship that is central to this discussion.

Before the spiritualist boom, instances of communication with spirits in the Western Esoteric Traditions was often characterised as demonic and ceremonial. Occult ideas around communication with the spirits was goal driven, for example through more extreme ritual practises such as mysticism and necromancing3. With the arrival of 19th century Spiritualism however, ideas surrounding communication with the dead became more akin to natural human conversations, for recreational purposes. 19th century mediumship allowed conversation to cross the vast chasm between the realm of the living and the dead, in a similar way that the technology of telegraphy could allow cross continental conversations without the ‘ritual’ of international post. Advancing technologies of the 20th and 21st centuries would continue to allow increased speed in communication as technologies progressed, and with the invention of email and SMS messaging and video calling. Communication, both spiritual and technological moved towards a more conversational tone as they progressed.

The role of a spiritual medium, or ‘spirit telegraph’ as a conversational figure is interesting when we consider historical social role theory, which suggests that women are more socially orientated. Women as mediums were central to the Spiritualist movement from its beginnings, starting with the Fox sisters. The role of the medium as belonging mainly to women may be due to traditional perceptions of women as possessing more intuitive or ‘sensitive’, qualities which reflect the spirit medium’s role as receiver of spirit voices. Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding media: The Extensions of Man (1967) extends his theory of technology as extensions of the body to the attitudes in which society viewed women in the 19th century, by stating that at this time women were viewed as a “technological extension of man’s being” (McLuhan, 1967, p. 34). Women, like the technology of the camera, were seen as tools through which man may gain connection to the spiritual. The rise of Spiritualism as an initially unorganised movement however, existing outside of major establishments as an occult practise, as all esoteric practises do, allowed the women involved full control of the cultural capital which their mediumistic abilities afforded them, and gave them the opportunity to bypass the male-centric hierarchal structures of the establishment. Women of Spiritualism successfully took society’s antiquated view of them as a living spiritual technology and used it as a means to grant themselves autonomy and voice in the 19th century society, where they had not previously been afforded them (Sconce, 2000). A relationship was forged by women in Spiritualism between their commodification as ‘technology’ and the possibilities of mediumship in Spiritualism. In the 21st century this relationship can be seen in the accessibility granted by the internet in the monetization of skills online. With the e-commerce websites of the digital age, such as Etsy, women have again forged their own spaces in which they can monetise and have full autonomy over their Spiritualist practise. Online sessions with spirit mediums and virtual readings available to purchase on the web are the 21st century examples of how technology may interact with Spiritualism to provide increased autonomy through mediumship.

Figure 4: The Fox sisters – the first 'Spirit Telegraphs', date unknown.

The relationship between the technology of electromagnetic telegraphy and Spiritualism continues to be a topic of exploration in the contemporary artworks of the 21st century. Mathew Ostrowski’s 2018 generative artwork Summerland involved the installation of 24 computer-controlled antique telegraph sounders into a gallery space, which were encoded to transmit the voices of both Samuel Morse and Kate Fox. (Ostrowski, 2018). The Telegraph sounders were fed texts, via computer, belonging to Morse and Fox, which they would receive and then tap out in Morse code to create a ghostly ‘voice’. By presenting the words of Fox alongside the technology’s inventor, (Morse), and with no distinction between the two, Ostrowski (2018) promotes the importance of the Fox sister’s contribution to the culture of communication technology. Ostrowski (2018), in his essay on the artwork, Summerland - Exploring the Intersection of Spiritualism and Technology at the Dawn of the Electrical Age describes his creation of a ‘spectral’ voice using electronic coding and the physical mechanisms of the telegraph sounders. In doing this, Ostrowski (2018) demonstrates the ghostly quality of the technology itself. No claims of mediumship are made in this creation of voice through mechanical tapping, yet the spectral quality remains. One may therefore consider the spectral qualities that the technology on its own possesses, without making any claims towards the supernatural.

This relates to Marshall McLuhan’s (1967) theory onf the distinction between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ medias. Considering this theory, one may begin to understand the reasons behind the technology of the telegraph affording its media a ‘haunted’ quality. McLuhan defines a ‘cool’ media as a media that is not filled with data, where only a small amount of information is given, his example of a very cool medium being the telephone, where the sound of a voice is the only information carried by the medium. In contrast a ‘hot’ media, such as film, is filled with information and leaves very little gap for the audience to have to fill in themselves. In their sparseness, ‘Cool medias’ demand more of their audience, but therefore also leave more room for the audience’s imagination to fill in gaps. Because of this, McLuhan states that ‘hot medias’ are low in participation, whereas ‘cool medias’ are high in participation, or completion, by its audience (McLuhan, 1967, p. 31). Telegraphy, therefore, can be considered an extremely cool medium, as it contains one single form of information in its tapping, which even then must be decoded by the audience from morse code into words. Telegraphy requires high audience participation even to achieve its basic function.

One may then assume that it is in this coolness of telegraphy as a medium that its potentials as a spiritual or ghostly media lie. The imagination required to fill in the gaps of the telegraphic medium lends itself well to supernatural interpretation. Just as the Fox sisters took the ‘cool media’ of knocking and rapping in their cottage and filled in the gaps to give it a supernatural source. We also see this in the limited pieces of information that a spirit medium would provide their audience, who may then use their imagination to fill in the gaps in order to, as with ‘spirit photography’, fulfil their desires of spiritual connection. Unlike the ‘cold media’ of the 19th century, many of the prominent technologies of the 21st century allow for the possibility of a very ‘hot media’.

Take for example the emerging technology of virtual reality (VR). This media is incredibly hot and provides the audience with a vast amount of visual, spatial and auditory information. This would mean that VR as a technology has less potential as a spiritual media, since the more information the audience is given the less gaps are left for supernatural interpretation. Photography as previously discussed may be considered an example of the ‘heating up’ of a media leading to its decline as a spiritual technology. In the early photography of Mumler the media existed in a cool state which allowed him the space to interpret the blurs of his photographs as ghostly apparitions. However, by the time photo manipulation technology developed into the 21st century, increasing the information capable of being contained within the photographic medium, less space for interpretation in this media meant the believability of photography as a spiritual technology suffered. As such, Spiritualism and the occult in the 21st century has had to adapt to the much ‘hotter’ media available as a result of the advancements of modern technology especially since the dawn of the internet age.

Wireless Connection: Spiritualism into the Internet Age

By considering again the way in which Spiritualism finds a metaphor in technology, one could also draw parallels between the immediate cultural impacts of the electromagnetic telegraph as a technology and the effects of technology in the early 21st century. Before electromagnetic telegraphy messages had previously been grounded in the immediate special sense of letters and writing. Telegraphy brought “physical connection despite physical separation” (Sconce, 2000, p. 7). While the subsequent evolution of telecommunication developed this connection with the invention of the telephone and television, it would perhaps be in the internet and email technology of the 1990s and early 21st century that this possibility was exemplified. The ease of connection and communication provided by the web not only transcended physical separation but also provided virtual space. It is these online spaces that allowed for the formation of many online communities as people worldwide connected through common interests on the message boards and forums of the late 90s. Communication was no longer linear, and a web of virtual human connection could be accessed.

In many ways, the emergence of wireless technologies in both the 19th and 21st centuries continued to reflect ideas long observable in Spiritualism. The Spiritualism movement opened up the prospect of communicating with people (or spirits) unseen, in a way that is extremely commonplace in our anonymous communication with people through the ‘invisible’ internet. To again consider the desires of an increasingly individualised culture experiencing the industrialisation of society in the 19th century, it is perhaps ultimately the desire to connect that lent to Spiritualism’s popularity. Just as bereaved people in the 19th century sought connection to the unseen through Spiritualism, people in the 21st century may turn instead to the internet to cope with bereavement in the increasingly isolating experience of a highly individualised society.

An example of this being online bereavement support forums. Through internet communities, individuals now have the power to connect with people they have never met through the intangible network of the web, just as the people of 19th century society turned to spirit mediums in order to allow them access and conversation with an intangible spirit network. It is then in this shared purpose of Spiritualism and technology in the 21st century to make connections that perhaps their strongest relationship can be found. 19th century Spiritualism was ultimately a social movement that afforded women the ability to connect with each other in a shared desire to commune with loved ones passed. The technology of the 21st century also speaks to a spiritual desire to connect with others, but with the universal connectivity of the internet it is perhaps easier to seek connection with others that share in one’s interests. Online Spiritualist communities in today’s digital age are but one example of the endless shared virtual spaces in which one can connect and communicate with others unseen. In this way although technologies have advanced since the 19th century, the esoteric values of the Spiritualism movement remain unchanged; its focus remaining on the connection to the unknown and the unseen.


So what can 19th and early 20th century Spiritualism and the occult’s relationship with technology tell us about Spiritualism’s relationship with modern technology in today’s digital age? The relationship seen in the phenomena of 19th century ‘spirit photography’ provides a mode through which technology can be considered an indicator of the societal desires of an era. The application of Spiritualist ideas in a newfound technology also tells of the way in which society may use Spiritualism as a means to consider the place of technology within the societal consciousness. Technology is in fact capable of informing the spiritual beliefs of an era, as seen in adoption of technology as a metaphor for Spiritualism in the telegraphic age. In the same way that 19th century technology spoke to society’s interest and desires to capture the unseen and preserve and access the memory of the dead, current societal desires are less focussed on the spirit, and more focused on the body as a capitalist object rather than a Spiritualist one.

In comparison to technologies of the 19th century such as the telegraph, 21st century technology is very decentralised, and so allows for more ‘collective’ communication. In today’s digital age the ‘hot’ nature of our media (McLuhan, 1967) such as the internet, and new technologies such as the computer and smartphone, means that there is less of a mystical quality in the technologies themselves, and by extension Spiritualism as a concept. Rather, modern technologies offer new ways in which both women as mediums and Spiritualism as a social community can exist and thrive within society as opposed to being on the occult fringes of pre 19th century society. The technology of the 21st century is perhaps less an “extension of man” (McLuhan, 1967), and more a window through which one may access a larger network beyond bodily metaphor. Perhaps it is in this access to virtual spaces and intangible planes of communication that Spiritualism finds another parallel in today’s digital age.

Today’s relationship between Spiritualism and technology is one less focused on the advancement of Spiritualism, but more of the possibilities and merits of Spiritualism and technology being used together as a means of connection and communion in the digital age. What future technology may hold for Spiritualism remains uncertain, but one may note that in their historic relationship one certainty may exist: that with each new scientific discovery and each societal advancement brought about in technology, a very ancient and human belief in the magic of what may still exist undiscovered will remain. To quote Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


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  1. Cultural consciousness can be defined as ‘the process of developing awareness of culture in the self, which can result in expanding understandings of culture and developing deeper cultural knowledge about other individuals and contexts. Culture in this process can be understood as the set of shared attitudes, values, beliefs, behavioural standards, goals, and practices that characterize an institution, organization, or group. As noted by Geneva Gay, we may not be consciously aware of it, but our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours are determined by culture that in turn influences our teaching and learning practices.’ (Banks, 2012)
  2. Tik Tok is a popular video sharing app where users shoot and edit short videos on their smartphones and upload them directly to their profile.
  3. Necromancing is the manipulation of the dead, in particular through resurrection, in order to gain answers to questions about the future.