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We Can Be Happy Underground

From the “Further Readings” section at the back of Paul Collin’s wonderful Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change The World:

There is one very simple way to see what Beach’s railway [19th century New York’s secret, unfinished pneumatic subway] looked like, and blown up far larger than any plate in this book could manage. Go to a Subway shop–the fast-food chain, you know, where you can buy a six-inch Cold Cut Trio?–and lo! Pasted upon the walls are pictures of Beach’s invention. Whoever was designing the chainwide decor for Subway simply clipped out a bunch of old public-domain illustrations of subways, including three that originally ran in Scientific American in the 1870s. Look for the pictures that depict an almost perfectly round (save for a slight groove in the bottom) brick-lined subway tunnel, and a rounded subway car interior. These are Beach’s own handpicked illustrations for what was to be an ultra-million-dollar venture. Graze pensively on your Baked Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips. Ponder the vagaries of ambition.

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The Medium is the Message

Tags: the supernatural is political, suffragists from the Great Beyond, Ghostbusters, ectoplasm, creepy retro bondage gear.

(Part Two of Two. Read Part One.)

My post the day before yesterday described The Perfect Medium, an exhibition of spiritualist photographs on this month at the Met. I talked about spiritualism as a technology, or at least a technological endeavor, and about the funny place the Gilded Age spiritualists tried to occupy between science and religion. I didn’t talk, yet, about what it was that I found unsettling about the exhibition–and no, it wasn’t the gallery of surprisingly portly Victorian ghosts.
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Spirit Fingers

Tags: ghost cameras, necrophones, the no man’s land between faith and reason, a pirate’s daughter.

(Part One of Two. Read Part Two.)

I was in New York last week, and I got a chance to see The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, an exhibit of spiritualist photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I enjoyed it, as I knew I would, but there was something disquieting about the exhibit too. It’s taken me a couple of days to put my finger on what that might have been.

The angel of death comes for Martin Sheen.
The angel of death comes for Martin Sheen.

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Turk 182

A few weeks ago I asked you who you rooted for in the French revolution: peasants, aristocrats, philosophes, bourgeoisie… I also rambled a while about Ben Franklin and imagined a ridiculous Enlightenment action movie pitting Poor Richard against the (fake) chess-playing mechanical clockwork known as the Turk. A friend of mine immediately slapped a “who do you root for in the French Revolution?” poll on his LiveJournal. Alas, he’s taken that site down, so I can’t link to it, but I believe the bourgeoisie turned out to be the surprising fan favorite. Must say something about LiveJournal’s emo youth demographic. My friend also flipped my plans for the Turk. In his version of the blockbuster Ben Franklin Code, the oaken Ottoman was a fomenter of rationalism and revolution, not the servant but the enemy of absolutist monarchies. He might have something there.

Soon after writing that earlier post, I came upon Simon Schaffer‘s article “Enlightenment Automata,” which puts our friend the Turk at the center of a wonderful discussion of eighteenth-century clockworks and their implications for Enlightenment-era debates about liberty, politics, economics, and free will. There’s lots of good stuff by Schaffer floating around the net, particularly at the Hypermedia Research Centre, about which I will hopefully post more later. But to find this particular essay, I fear you may have to read a book.
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