My first impression is of being covered with spider webs. Then I feel that the air is filled with substance, and a kind of white and vaporous mass, quasi-luminous, like the steam from a locomotive is formed in front of the abdomen. After this mass has been tossed and agitated in every way for some minutes, sometimes even for a half hour, it suddenly stops, and then of it is born a living being close to me. 1
You harness it like steam, says the aptly named Mme. d’Esperance: maximally, by reducing its loss through leaks in the system, by constraining, controlling and aiming its otherwise stochastic cloud- formation through the construction of material systems, through the reduction of entropic noise and leakage. The inherent quality of steam, one might say, is that it tends to escape; the same pressure that constitutes its utility also threatens any attempt to harness and tame it. Mediums present themselves as spiritual steam-machines, channeling an innate potentiality in all humans—the production of ectoplasm —by virtue of their closer progress toward some utopian superhuman endpoint, when all noise is eliminated and only signal remains, only the soul rush of spiritual steam-powered total enlightenment.
In spate, they are literal expressionists, squeezing out parahuman phantom-limb prosthetics, sticky doppelgangers, gooey antennas that are at once receptors for and proofs of the radical simultaneity of worlds, of the commingled registers of being and representation. It was a revelation that was supposed to empty the underworlds, put them to supersonic flight and make us unearthly, disembodied and graveless: wireless listening stations widely dispersed through an inscrutably folded universe of signals and noise. Resist, for a moment, the easy ontology of ectoplasm, the copout that unmasks ectoplasm as sticky gauze soaked in lanolin hidden beneath the medium’s tongue, or sheeps’ guts spilling out from underneath her dress, or fraudulent cotton balls glued to her nipples. Turn the logic around, for the sake of argument, and instead of looking at ectoplasm as the product of man, begin with the assumption that man is a product of ectoplasm. And who cares if either one of them is real. Verum factum.
The ectoplasmic seance is an evidentiary Eucharist, a late Victorian kundalini orgasm of evidence. Ectoplasmic doubles—glowing like viscous vacuum tubes, or cocooning their subjects in white rhizomatic fibers of clay-cold mesh, or at first concealing and then revealing hokey portraits of deceased sitters like the photoshopped face of the devil in the death-cloud of the twin towers, collaged in like newsprint on silly putty—are meant to be the semi-fluid matrix for a heretic New Revelation, a bridal bower for some taboo wedlock of Reason and Faith, an apocalyptic rupture and re-enchantment of the world, a secular salvation that is both frenzied and morbidly repressed. It is the instrument for the reimagination of man as a kind of distributed device, as a para-human machine and a cyborg.
What offends me most is the true believers’ excitement at the prospect: this hidden Beautiful truth that we hear is on the brink of some incredible manifestation, loosed by the birth of what Jenny Pincock heralds as the “Era of Invisible Force,” this fervent conviction that the total fact of these communications points to some hidden Real, some cosmic plan, some grand consolation that will make up for everything, that will announce the arrival of that “farther along where we’ll know all about it,” this neo-Augustinian confessional turning-point where all our individual, serial, stories and histories reveal themselves to be portents thick with occult meaning… it is not what they think at all. Although I’ll admit that their apprehensions are accurate, in a way: it really was the era of invisible force and it really was in a state of maturation. But it was headed in a direction that the ectoplasmic mirror couldn’t foretell, except perhaps darkly. Pincock and her contemporaries set sail like Dante’s Ulysses—who never makes it home, never even tries—beyond the gates of Gibraltar and into the western sea. In 1928, they have just spotted the “mountain dim,” the loftiest they’d ever beheld, and Joy has seized them straight, but we know how soon to mourning it will change: how soon from the new land comes the whirlwind. That line of Dante, “Joy seiz’d us straight but soon to mourning chang’d,” is the one that best captures their mood, their enthusiasm at their imminent post-humanity, their celebration of the transformation of the harmony of the spheres into a white-noise sepulchral chorus.
But if Fustel de Coulanges was right, and human habitation in its broadest sense—if the Dasein—is built on vestal foundations laid in our collective stygian humus, in humanity’s rotten, corpsey compost —if it is like Benares, where the newest buildings are built from the bones of the oldest, on the bones of the oldest, and no one really knows how deep the ghats’ steps go—then what unearthly abode can be built over these invisible utopias where the dead aren’t dead, where humus is replaced with radio-wave vibrations? What else except a disembodied, disembodying fantasy of liberation from mankind’s ancient debt to the grave and the plow? And tiny screens glowing in front of slack-jawed faces on a trans-Atlantic flight. I think modernity went bankrupt in the trenches at Verdun, and was probably fatally flawed as a roadmap from the beginning, but Latour put it best: we have never been modern— and our attempted ectoplasmic emancipation from the bond to our graveyard earth, from seed and soil, has come at a terrible cost, perhaps at the cost of humanity, but certainly at the cost of relentless daily holocausts of millions of others in the factory-farm slaughterhouses. We never achieved the escape velocity needed to really get out into orbit, just enough to reach the edge of the slightly curving forcefield that marks the beginning of the zero-g sky. We can float up there with Richard Branson for an expensive moment perhaps, but when we come down it will be at ramming speed.
- A description of the “feeling” of ectoplasmic manifestation, from the late 19th century British medium Mme. d’Esperance ↩