Machines, Spirits, and the Rise of the Secular Occult

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE)

#digitalunconscious (CIC lecture 23.10. 2018)

Dr. (Samuel) Johnson once said about ghosts that “all argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” If universal signs do exist, ghosts are probably among them. The details concerning spirits may vary from culture to culture, but the general idea remains constant. For the believers, the residue of the dead can inhabit any space—homes, offices, natural environments from volcanoes to outer space, and most significant for our purposes here, machines. They can exist at any point in time while simultaneously existing outside of time. They are inescapable, flexible signs that function beautifully to give explanation to the inexplicable, establish continuity of consciousness, and act as receptacles for hopes and fears. With all this power, even as mere metaphor, they currently help to concretize and explain the haunting moments spinning out of global digital networks.

Machines Making Ghosts

The creation of the modern ghost is intimately tied to complex technology. The wispy, ethereal, dematerialized spirits of today’s Western world were not always so. In the seventeenth century, apparitions typically took solid form. While they could have superhuman strength, a person’s ghost would by all accounts look as the person did in life. The ghost may appear as the person did at the moment of death, or as they did in good health, but there would be no doubt about the specter’s identity. This conception of ghosts began to shift in the late eighteenth century, in part due to the public demand for spectacular optical effects that functioned as entertainment. While the magic lantern had been creating translucent and, at times, ghostly effects for over one hundred years, a new generation of special effects was emerging. Representative of this first wave was Paul de Philipsthal’s Phantasmagoria (the assembly of ghosts). The date of this device is hard to pin down, but what is known is that Philipsthal had been presenting ghostly spectaculars since 1789. The advance in this ghost-making machine was that it was a rear-screen projection done in darkness and offering the illusion of free-floating spirits. By moving the projector and combining painted slides, the technical director could produce the illusion of movement and shift scale. Spectacles such as this did much to move the public imagination away from the ghostly solidity of old to configurations of light afloat in the darkness.

The combining of painted slides would herald what was to come next—the double exposure in photography. Photography itself could sustain the contradiction of having an aesthetic dimension yet still being an “objective observer.” Shortly after its invention, photography played a key role in the generation of evidence for and against the existence of spirits. This was especially true at the peak of Spiritualism between 1860 and 1880. Photos of spirit manifestation were held up as proof that a spirit world existed and that spirits were among us. Skeptics were keen to respond with technical explanations of how the photos were faked. Even Philipsthal got into the debunking business at the end of his career.

Photography lent itself to the new construction of spirits, partly because of techniques like the double exposure and illusions created with lighting, but also because there had to be a way to differentiate an apparition from a living human. During the solidity days, the surprise ending to many a story involved people conversing with an acquaintance, friend, or loved one only to later learn that the person had died the day before. For the photo to act as evidence, the ghost had to have qualities readily distinguishable from humans. The smoky wisps and translucent countenances were exactly what was required. Once this model of spirit visitation was accepted as the norm, cameras could efficiently manufacture ghostly portraits for public distribution.

Also significant to the development of the modern ghost were the technologies of sound transmission and recording, including the phonograph and records, telephone, and radio. The possibility of a disembodied voice combined with sound capture was a notion that intrigued those with a fancy for the inhabitants of the afterlife, perhaps culminating in the mythic machine that Edison allegedly tried to build, in which the living and the dead could converse. Whether or not a prototype was built is uncertain, as is whether Edison was joking, a believer, or just on the grift when he first mentioned the device during an interview in the October 1920 issue of the American Magazine. Be that as it may, those searching for evidence of the spirit world are still wildly enthusiastic about this form of contact. Contemporary spirit societies and ghost hunters consistently use recording devices and white noise to capture the sounds and speech of spirits who want to communicate with the living (EVP, or electronic voice phenomena). The spirits are allegedly able to manipulate the white noise to produce speech, and the device is sensitive to this sound beyond the capabilities of human ears. The interesting point here is that the Edisonian model (whether done in jest or not) lives on—with the proper technologically grounded sleuthing, investigators of the unknown can test hypotheses concerning the spirit world and hauntings. A major step toward secular occultism is taken at this point. The intersections between science, engineering, and the unknown world of spirits begin to multiply.

The last stop on our brief tour is television. CAE immediately thinks of the moment in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist when young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) sits in front of the television only to turn and, in her eerie little girl voice, announce “They’re hee-eere.” Like Spielberg’s TV ghosts, spirits are thought to travel through portals in order to hop between dimensions and worlds, and these portals are often mirrors. Television was the mirror of the mid-twentieth century. At that time, television was a crude form of national networking—a place of shared cultural experience on a level never seen before, and a place of mass manipulation. Because of its crudity, the origin of the forces of manipulation was easier to identify. The means and methods could be quickly revealed. But as screens proliferated in our homes, offices, and finally into our pockets, as the network grew to be global, and as it sucked an ever-greater population into its matrix, forces emerged that are of the unknown. We often understand the point of contact, but their point of origin, or whether they are living or artificial, are mysteries that are never really solved among the vast majority of individuals. Under such conditions, the language of the occult becomes useful in everyday life.

Digital Hauntings and Secular Occultism

In a metaphorical sense, global digital networks are the state of the art for hauntings. They fuel the machines that make the ghosts that are sometimes sent and sometimes emerge without design to torment, terrorize, push, and nudge. (CAE is not saying that this is the sole function global digital networks, only that it is among the fundamental ones.) What are these forces, where do they come from, and what do they want? A substantial majority of people lost in the realm of the screenal have no idea, and at best can only appeal to the magical sign of the algorithm (which is also not understood in any concrete sense). In order to have knowledge of the hidden (occultism), perhaps they can appeal to technomancers and mediums who know the secret codes and sources and can manipulate the symbols in ways that call forth cryptic power, and perhaps even force it to submit to their commands—but even they cannot stop the hauntings. The only real answer is to stop using the portal, but this option is not possible in any practical sense. Screens, keyboards, and networks structure our primary activities, so hauntings become a fundamental part of our lives to which we begrudgingly and, in the case of CAE, resentfully submit.

The experience of the hauntings are well understood by all who are exposed to them. Like supernatural hauntings, the ghosts at times attach themselves to (virtual) place, and at times to people, so the experience is always intensely personal. We know they are watching and building profiles based on every click and keystroke in an effort first to oppress and, on occasion, to possess. Sometimes this is for the purpose of terror. We know that the dark forces are there through various data dumps of hidden rituals and spells, but more often by tortures perpetrated upon a person or persons whom we know. The hidden don’t normally announce themselves or communicate directly, and when they do, it is for purposes of possession. Yet even in their absence, these specters always haunt us by instilling fear and lingering feelings of threat. They do not need to directly possess; they can oppress through limiting expression and action in the social sphere, both real and virtual.

Other times, the spirits of the virtual netherworld build profiles to extract value. These spirits are there to annoy and/or torment. They never stop watching; they never stop communicating. They force us into constant dialogue of the most inane variety. We email a friend that we are considering moving and the advertising banners for weeks on end are filled with real estate agencies, new developments, household items, moving companies, interior designers, and homeowners’ insurance, along with paid news feed about the best and worst places to live, housing prices, housing crises, and so on. To make matters worse, they know how to reach into the brain in order to vandalize the circuitry. They know better than ever what Ernest Dichter knew as early as the 1950s: that humans are not reasoned creatures when confronted with decisions concerning what is in their best interest. The lie of homo economicus that humans have long told and continue to tell about ourselves is just that. We can be pushed and nudged to do what a reasoned person would not, so we are bombarded with communications that shift motivations and initiate behavioral imperatives.

And yet so much is a torment of our own making, as we continually offer more and more data for the dark forces to soak up in order to create these oppressive digital doppelgangers, to produce data bodies that return to haunt us. Fragmented representations of ourselves emerge to render maximum humiliation tailored to the social context and circumstance in which we find ourselves. No matter how much we give to the real and artificial entities in the digital mirror, they always want more, until our identity is what they say it is. The doppelganger becomes the real, and flesh the imitation. And unfortunately for all, they cannot be appeased.

More Ghosts than Ever

As neoliberal economy has moved along, the monstrous has evolved with it. Horror has always been profitable, but fashion favorites have changed over the decades. In the 1980s it was vampires to accompany the assets (life) being sucked out of commoners to be centralized amongst an elite of superhumans. This was followed by the domination of the second favorite monster of the ’80s, zombies. First as a lost generation wandering aimlessly around malls, but then as a metaphor for neoliberalism itself—an economy that mechanically wreaks havoc and death on anything standing in the way of profit. Now it appears to be ghosts that are all the rage, and a new style of representation has emerged: nonfiction in which the ghost need not appear at all. Electromagnetic and temperature readings take their place, in conjunction with tapes of disembodied voices. The fictional narratives, where the ghosts do still appear, now share the stage with “reality-based” shows. CAE’s unofficial count of ghost reality shows on US cable TV is thirty-two. These programs are being produced in the US, Canada, and the UK. And on pay services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, there are yet more from numerous non-English speaking countries. Admittedly, the prime driver is the relatively low production cost of this type of representation, but there has to be an audience that wants to watch it—and there is. CAE suspects that one reason for the popularity of these shows is nostalgia for the supernatural—the hope and desire for “real” ghosts. Next to the daily bashing people receive from the digital ghosts, the traditional ghost allows a sense of hope (continuity of sentience) in spite of the fear (anger at the living) that is conjured. Unlike secular hauntings, supernatural hauntings have an upside in the confirmation of life after death, and allow for the unexplainable to be simply explained.

One common theme in reality shows is that the victim of a haunting is being made sick by the offending entity. Most of the sickened would look ill even if they weren’t being haunted, and it is likely that their environment is toxic. A more likely spook would be the toxification of people and the planet, which in turns spins off two key environmental problems: climate change and mass extinction. Such problems are difficult for most to comprehend, and it is even harder to comprehend how to reverse these disastrous tendencies and then to prioritize the deployment of a solution at a structural level. A haunting is so much easier to understand—a ghost is making me sick—than a toxic environment or a corrupt food supply (where behavioral imperatives are routinely stimulated to make unhealthy foods irresistible), or any other cause that requires critical reflection and curious investigation to uncover. Wherever hyperobjects exist that are so complex that they become indecipherable at an everyday life level, the situation is ripe for ghosts. That is exactly the situation now: complexity rules not just the environmental disaster, but also never-ending wars, global economic inequality, and an emerging robotic division of labor. Boo!