“A More Vital Communication”: Telepathic Hallucination and the Proto-Posthuman Event

Curator's Note

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.


R.D. - Thank you for wrapping up our week with such an intriguing post.  Your connection between posthumosity and posthumanist is absolutely fascinating, and I think there is a lot there to explore.  The "human after death," as you indicate, is a fruitful area within which to position posthumanism, as death is a space "after the human."

I was wondering if you could provide more context for these slides.  Were these drawings done as someone was dying?  Who was the "interpreter" for the telepathic messages?

Thanks for your feedback, Drew.

These slides are the product of "experimental" attempts to replay the forces at work in the "spontaneous" telepathy of the crisis or death experience. So the communication is taking place between individuals who are very much alive, often close friends or lovers. The typical protocol was to put the two individuals in different rooms, often on different floors, sometimes in different buildings entirely. The sender would focus on the top image, while the "percipient" would attempt to clear her mind of past and present perceptions in order to prepare the most ripe conditions for "reception" (metaphors and analogies involving telegraphy and, later, wireless radio are abundant in the literature of psychical research). She would then draw what could only have been transmitted through pure intuition (as Bergson would have it).

Certain of the theories hold that the moments just before death afford greater telepathic powers on account of increased radioactivity and entropy of the organism, but unfortunately there hasn't been much empirical research along these lines (at least not that I'm aware of).

And the link to Bergson is also not by chance. He served as president to the SPR in 1913. Beyond his general curiosity about telepathy, I'm interested in exploring the ways in which his concept of internal difference (as well as those of duration and memory) can be read as a means of resolving certain problems in theorizing telepathic communication.

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