Marshal McLuhan famously quipped that the electronic revolution would eventually realize a “global ESP” to topple the alphabetic world and its enlightened humanist values. In our age of pseudo ubiquitous telematic connectivity, we would be hard pressed to rebuff such a prediction. In fact, a large part of what constitutes our espoused posthumanity is precisely this technologically-facilitated capacity to transcend, anytime and anywhere, most all spatial and temporal limitations to communication. I propose to conclude “Posthumanism and Media” week with a genealogical detour into a cultural milieu similarly governed by a drive to discover new principles of connection in a rapidly changing environment.
In 1886, the Cambridge-based Society for Psychical Research published Phantasms of the Living, a monumental, multi-volume compilation of anecdotal evidence for the existence of “spontaneous telepathic hallucinations.” Its common trope runs something like this: In a moment of crisis or on the verge of death, a person appears to a distant relative or lover. A fascinating array of physical, metaphysical and psycho-social speculations followed, seeking to explain how such a desperate communiqué, “more vital” and more “affective” than any ordinarily available means, could in fact take place. Was there an “ethereal medium”? A “mental field”? Some “vista of unlimited information” through which one psyche might touch another across a great divide?
From these lines of inquiry emerged some of the earliest theories of real-time image transmission. To corroborate their hypotheses, the psychical researchers spent the next several years rigorously lab testing this “profounder faculty.” Spontaneous telepathy hinged on the force of the dying moment—the literal proto-post-human event. The telepathy drawings curated here express this force at work on a much more modest scale. The results remain both overwhelming and entirely underappreciated.
Animated by “sympathy” and characterized predominately by “suddenness” and a “feeling of impersonality,” telepathic hallucinations ultimately model a connectivity quite unlike that of our present-day networked society (passé McLuhan). While the communications industry has harnessed the powers of the tele- with extraordinary success, it has done so at the expense of the pathetic. Rather than an encounter with contingency, we receive, on a screen, only what we have, at some level of consciousness, already chosen in advance. To realize our potential to become more than just humans with manifold technological supplements—that is, to truly evolve—we might start by rethinking the posthumousity at the heart of the posthuman.