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by Mike Mowbray

Telepathy is a term coined in 1883 by F.W.H. Myers to denote “the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense” (Peters 2001: 105). The notion of telepathy is very much bound up with a movement from occult to scientific conceptualizations, specifically from the power to channel spirits attributed to psychic mediums to that of ‘thought transference’ by hitherto unexplained sensory means. This conceptual shift, which gave rise to efforts in some quarters to locate this ostensive human potentiality in a quite physical ‘sixth sense’ (e.g. Fletcher 1907; Sinel 1927), represents only one broad movement; literary and intelectual accounts from the last part of the 19th century indicate not only a recurrent scientizing thrust (often seeming to follow the lead of – and at time presage – technological developments), but a continuing engagement with more philosophical problematics and intimate concerns.

The invention of the telegraph, itself momentous in the history of communications (marking the advent of standard time in North America and pronounced delocalization of price-setting in the market, among other things), may have in part inspired efforts on the part of psychical researchers, such as Myers, a founder of the British Society for Psychical Research. Out of profound interest in the practices and claims of spiritualism (or ‘spiritism’), including, as Thurschwell (2009) notes, Myers captivation by the idea that the mind or personality might persist after physical death, members of the Society – not without seeming tension – entertained the transcendent possibilities of unmediated connection with others as they shifted attention from séance to laboratory. Such late 19th-century investigators sought to present “a scientific reproach to spiritism” (Hacking 1988: 435) which refused to defer to the notion that the feats of a psychic medium might directly ‘channel’ the spirits of the dead, and instead proposed that information might be accessed from the subliminal consciousness of those present (or others more distant) “via,” as Peters (2001: 106) puts it, “some kind of quasi-physical process of thought transference.” The confluence of possibilities announced by the new technology of the telegraph (and by subsequent developments) and interest in the fundamental possibilities of communication, touching at times on questions with profound ethical and metaphysical connotations, point to a complex socio-cultural genesis which implicates, but is by no means reducible to, the play of imagination in a new realm of ‘tele-technics.’

On the one hand, a rather straightforward narrative extrapolation from the effects and interpretations arising from the telegraph and subsequent tele-technics can be credited with inspiring and shaping ideas about telepathy (as we shall see presently); on the other, a more complicated story is intimated by Pamela Thurschwell’s (2009) “The Erotics of Telepathy: The British SPR’s Experiments in Intimacy,” included in The Sixth Sense Reader, one which seeks a better understanding of “how various effects of collapse, communication and intimate contact with others’ bodies and minds contributed to creating a permeable, boundary-crossing, potentially telepathic subject at the turn of the century” (188).

As the American scholar of communications James W. Carey (2009) suggests, we might distil the most important fact about the telegraph into a simple proposition, “at once the most obvious and the most innocent: It permitted for the first time the effective separation of communication and transportation”  (156-157). Whereas the two were literally inseparable when messages accompanied a train or traveler (or were at least markedly more embodied and geographically constrained when conveyed via semaphore-like exchanges from visual relay points in the earliest supersession of this identity), telegraphy brought people around to the notion that the intersubjective transfer of human thought (or feeling, as in the notion of telaesthesia, coined in 1892) need not rely on traditionally obvious means (Carey 2009 155-177; Peters 2001: 103-108). Communication had previously been thinkable only as a movement of messages tethered to physical, tangible objects (trains, bodies, carrier pigeons), but came to be decoupled from such necessity with the advent of the telegraph – arousing new ideas that sought to extend this logic, even to do away with the physical trappings which remained for the new communications technologies. As regards the thinking of telepathy, the invisibility of the electrical impulse in the case of the telegraph, not to mention the radio’s subsequent dismissal of the apparent need for any tangible infrastructure as media of conveyance, led to a search to locate, specify, and explore a possible ‘sixth sense’ in the realm of telepathy.

Early discussion of the telegraph was often “clothed in the language of religious aspiration and secular millenarianism,” what Carey and John Quirk have called the “rhetoric of the electrical sublime” (Carey 2009: 159). For some, the possibilities entailed led inexorably towards the examination of telepathic impulses and potentials. Sir William Crookes, in 1892, prefigured 2-way radio in writing of a “telegraphy without wires,” and shortly came to speculate on the possibilities of “brain waves” – a term emerging in the context of psychical research into telepathy, only to take on its familiar electrophysical use in the 1930s – traveling between senders and receivers without necessary technological mediation (Peters 2001: 104). Such possibilities were sometimes enthusiastically inferred from technological developments, as they were by one Frederic Fletcher, in a book entitled The Sixth Sense: Psychic Origin, Rationale, and Development: “If a machine can produce etheric waves, capable of cognition and communication, the same possibility should exist within ourselves” (cited in Peters 2001: 105).

In literature, a famously relevant example addressing the kind of thinking expressed here is to be found in Rudyard Kipling’s “Wireless” (1902). Kipling presents us with a narrator observing in turn, in the front and back rooms of a pharmacist’s, an electrician tinkering with a wireless Morse conductor (seeking signals from a friend in another town) and the proprietor’s assistant, set upon by tuberculosis and heavily drugged. The former is unable to connect with the location he seeks, but picks up messages from two ships offshore, messages unsuccessfully aimed at one another. The latter, at the same time, appears to be composing verses already written by the poet Yeats – having not read him, still producing an imperfect but undeniable near-transcription. Both the dead poet and the assistant share a profession, a similarly-named object of affection, and the tubercular condition, leading the narrator to speculate that the coincidence of circumstances is tied to the assistant’s apparent, if imperfect, channeling of Keats. The “two partially successful transmissions” achieved by the electrician and the assistant present us with an “analogy between science and séance” (Thurschwell 2009: 196-197). Both appear to rely on an essentially inexplicable media of transmission, with electricity functioning, as Thurschwell puts it, as a kind of “black box” which can be used without practical understanding, an “explanation for which no explanation is required” and which contributes the raw symbolic materials to fill in the blanks with regard to the strange transmission apparently received by the assistant.

As Thurschwell (2009: 188) notes, Samuel Clemens1 in 1884 equated the Society for Psychical Research’s notion of “thought transference” with “mental telegraphy,” a term reiterated in an 1891 article for Harper’s Magazine. However, Thurschwell is quick to mention the more profound concerns of members of the Society in contradistinction to Twain’s apparent interest in the quite practical advantage to direct mental transaction – which itself preceded the above noted textual examples with an “American can-do version of thought transference,” collapsing communication and the need even for language itself (189). Clearly a richer account can be offered by looking beyond to both the motives of the SPR’s circle and the wider cultural deployments of the telepathic idea. Considering telepathy as a kind of ‘sense’, some viewed it as one example of “long lost but once serviceable faculties” (Pierce and Podmore, ibid: 193) which had lapsed into unconscious potentiality as evolutionary cast-offs; others, like Myers, viewed it as an evolutionary progression in the extension of human powers. Generally speaking, despite skepticism towards some aspects of popular spiritualism, it seems that Myers and others in the SPR were “heavily affectively invested” (200) in seeking transcendent meaning through their activities – though the SPR held no monopoly on such investments. In any case, the imagination of such a telepathic faculty was connected not only to emerging technology, but implicated other socio-cultural impulses and concerns as well. As Thurschwell puts it, the business of articulating the telepathic entails “stretching and delimiting the acceptable boundaries of interaction between living minds, living bodies, and ghostly materializations” (186) in ways that were by no means uniform.

Noting the SPR’s progressive skepticism toward ‘physical mediums,’ often lower class women claiming to channel the spirits of the dead in ‘experimental’ or performance contexts where physical contact (a straightforwardly sensual erotics of touch) was an important component, she suggests that the Society’s aim was in part to establish the truth of thought-transference or telepathy in isolation from the taint of desire and a “distracting [physical] erotics” (198). Thurschwell draws attention to (physically) insubstantial motifs in “the language of telepathy as the desire for absolute knowledge and melding with another,” (198) an ethico-metaphysical desire for communion without intervening medium located equally by Peters (2001). Indeed, such desires were generalized to the social realm: William Barrett, “one of the staunchest supporters of the truth of telepathy” (Thurschwell 2009: 192), went so far as to envision a social utopia in which the pains and pleasures elicited by different circumstances of living would make stark inequalities unbearable – “where social justice would follow inevitably from shared thoughts” (ibid.) Other imaginings of telepathy were not necessarily so starry-eyed or uncomplicated.

Drawing on the 1890s novels Dracula (Bram Stoker) and Teleny (an anonymous pornographic work), Thurschwell insists that the dephysicalized circumscription of intimate telepathic possibilities around the SPR cannot exhaust the notion’s popular meanings. In Dracula, when the vampire sets upon Mina Harker, “the sexualized, bodily enervating vampiric attack also creates a telepathic corollary,” (199) an invasive tele-connection which allows Dracula to track his pursuers through her. Teleny, the story of two homosexual lovers, opens with the eponymous character asking Des Greux, the narrator: “Do you believe in the transmission of thought, of feelings, of sensations?” (ibid). An affair follows – described in ‘electric’ terms – and the novel repeatedly invokes not only a collapsed communication (in shared experience across distance and identification with the other so complete that identities dissolve), but “an almost unbearably collapsed physicality” (200) in which Des Grieux feels as though he is touching his own body as he embraces Teleny. Such examples from literature clearly stress the dystopic side to telepathic potentials, and refocus attention on other contexts in which the notion wove in and out of popular culture.

In it’s drier ‘scientific’ guise, the posited human faculty of ‘telepathy’ was summarized as follows by SPR member and anthropologist N. W. Thomas in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911): “as used by the Society, the term […] is a mere designation, and implies no hypothesis as to ‘action at a distance’ or the operation of any force not recognized by physical science” (Hacking 1988: 436). Elsewhere, the possibilities of such a faculty fueled both explicit speculation and a particular inflection of thought, speech, and experience; the notion alternately gave rise to a sense of utopian promise in consummate communication (amongst individual and social bodies) and dystopian imaginings of mental invasion or the dissolution of self-identity and individual embodiment. Bound up in all of this is the imaginative bounty offered by technological innovations such as the telegraph and its successors, “severing the wire of visible, materialized transmission in the last decades of the nineteenth century,” and therefore “help[ing] to create a new metaphorics for imagining intimate relations with others” (Thurschwell 2009: 200-201). This development “both promised and threatened that the mind was not necessarily a sealed and protected space” (201), and appears to have extensively reshaped many people’s sense of the limits of the sensible and sensuous. In any case, the notion of telepathy has been a “contradictory creature” (194), and presents an intriguing case-study at the intersection of socio-cultural articulations, hopes for the transcendent, and corollary fears spurred on by technological feats not easily assimilated to the popular imaginary. The complex re-framing of notions of communication which the case of telepathy brings to the fore provide ample food for thought, calling into question any taken-for-granted stability of the subjective potentiality delimited by concepts of the human sensorium.

Works cited

Carey, James W. 2009. Communication as Culture: Essays on media and society. New

York: Routledge.

Fletcher, Frederic. 1907. The Sixth Sense: Psychic origin, rationale, and development.

London: Fletcher.

Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking Into the Air: A history of the idea of

communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sinel, Joseph. 1927. The Sixth Sense: A physical explanation of clairvoyance, telepathy,

    hypnotism, dreams, and other phenomena usually considered occult. Forty years of study, obervation and experiment. London: T. Werner Laurie.

Thurschwell, Pamela. 2009. “The Erotics of Telepathy: The British SPR’s Experiments

    in Intimacy,”  in The Sixth Sense Reader, edited by David Howes. Oxford and New York: Berg.