Last November I took part in an interesting interdisciplinary conference at the Humboldt in Berlin, on “Looking through the Occult: Instrumentation, Esotericism, and Epistemology“. It moved in the landscape of media studies, history of science and technology, religious studies, art history, and esotericism, and was organized by a scholarly network interested in what they call “nonhegemonic knowledge”:
“A working thesis for this project is that intertwined conceptions of media, technology, and esotericism structured the circulation of knowledge and goods between colonizing and colonized peoples. We believe that a number of the problems animating recent research in non-modern ontologies, new materialisms, cultural techniques [Kulturtechniken], and the digital humanities derive — directly or indirectly — from intertwined nineteenth century transformations in social geography, technology, and popular belief. We hope to cast new light on concepts of media mobility and so-called social media by re-examining nineteenth century spiritual and technological transformations.”
I’m not sure how much light was thrown on this thesis in the end, but there were certainly a few interesting individual talks (and a high concentration of ectoplasm jokes). Two related observations from an esotericism researcher: it was noticeable how “esotericism” was largely equated with “spiritualism” in this setting (understandable in light of the media studies context), and moreover, that “best examples” of “spiritualism” were quite consistently the most exotic, female cases – thus overplaying, perhaps, the “marginality”, exoticism and gendered nature of this complex phenomenon.
In any case, results of the conference are now slowly starting to materialise (huh, huh). I just discovered that audio recordings of the talks have been made available for download at the website, so if you want to listen in retrospectively, do check those out. John Duram Peters’ keynote on technological and lay-scientific practices in early Mormonism was a highlight for me,
well worth checking out – but oops! apparently the ghosts in the machine have replaced his talk with Tessel’s on surrealism (also good, by the way). You’ll also be able to hear me ramble on about some loose end ideas on representational practices in the physical sciences and the occult in the late-nineteenth century and a (questionable) attempt to make some generalizations about different inferential strategies. The somewhat surprising thesis that “occult” understandings of science were (naively) empirical and realist, while scientific epistemologies were becoming increasingly deductive and anti-realist, may still need some more work, though. In any case it was a fun experiment.
Update: John Duram Peters’ wonderful talk is available here. Beware; Peters had a torn Achilles at the time and warns at the outset, “I’ve written this talk under the influence of drugs…”