Haunted Media

Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television

Haunted Media

Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural Power

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Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 28 photographs Published: August 2000

Author: Jeffrey Sconce

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Media Technologies

In Haunted Media Jeffrey Sconce examines American culture’s persistent association of new electronic media—from the invention of the telegraph to the introduction of television and computers—with paranormal or spiritual phenomena. By offering a historical analysis of the relation between communication technologies, discourses of modernity, and metaphysical preoccupations, Sconce demonstrates how accounts of “electronic presence” have gradually changed over the decades from a fascination with the boundaries of space and time to a more generalized anxiety over the seeming sovereignty of technology.
Sconce focuses on five important cultural moments in the history of telecommunication from the mid-nineteenth century to the present: the advent of telegraphy; the arrival of wireless communication; radio’s transformation into network broadcasting; the introduction of television; and contemporary debates over computers, cyberspace, and virtual reality. In the process of examining the trajectory of these technological innovations, he discusses topics such as the rise of spiritualism as a utopian response to the electronic powers presented by telegraphy and how radio, in the twentieth century, came to be regarded as a way of connecting to a more atomized vision of the afterlife. Sconce also considers how an early preoccupation with extraterrestrial radio communications tranformed during the network era into more unsettling fantasies of mediated annihilation, culminating with Orson Welles’s legendary broadcast of War of the Worlds. Likewise, in his exploration of the early years of television, Sconce describes how programs such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits continued to feed the fantastical and increasingly paranoid public imagination of electronic media. Finally, Sconce discusses the rise of postmodern media criticism as yet another occult fiction of electronic presence, a mythology that continues to dominate contemporary debates over television, cyberspace, virtual reality, and the Internet.
As an engaging cultural history of telecommunications, Haunted Media will interest a wide range of readers including students and scholars of media, history, American studies, cultural studies, and literary and social theory.


Haunted Media is a remarkably well-written book. [Sconce’s] style is vibrant, verging on the poetic at times without losing clarity. He ranges across an impressive variety of historical ephemera from TV Guide sidebars to pulp magazine stories, and he does so without ever losing sight of the primary payoff of the book: the connections between the metaphors in these marginal works and the metaphors that govern our understandings of mass media. . . . Haunted Media finds central insights in unusual places, giving fresh context to time-honored media metaphors.” — Greg M. Smith , Rhetoric & Public Affairs

Haunted Media is an intriguing and stimulating book, full of whimsy, fantasy, and interest . . . . Much of his raw material reads like McLuhanism gone mad, but Sconce skillfully exerts analytical rigour while preserving its sense of wonder and wackiness.” — Douglas Craig , Australasian Journal of American Studies

“[A] unique, readable, and engrossing account of the fantasies and mythology people embrace in coping with electronic media. . . . The writing is brilliant and author’s grasp of the social and cultural implications of electronic media is breathtaking. A must for all collections.” — R. Cathcart , Choice

“Like most works of cultural studies, Haunted Media unearths lots of B movies you’ve never seen and strange tales you’ve never read . . . Thankfully, Sconce supplements these readings with juicy accounts of paranormal folklore and weird science: radio signals emerging from household objects; ghosts haunting TV screens; voices discovered on tape recordings of ‘dead air.’ This sort of anthropological material is where the rubber of the cultural imagination really hits the road. . . This is fresh stuff.” — Erik Davis , Bookforum

“This is a wonderful book. Sconce writes so well, that the histories emerge with a freshness and clarity that few could replicate. The loopy inventiveness of this cult-oriented field of popular culture is really cleverly caught—without condescension, and with real relish. It is not only good history, it is first rate cultural theory as well. Sconce teases out the threads of the continuing discourse and their functions for their users, so that he provides a genuinely illuminating contribution to our understanding of the function of the electronic media over the last century.” — Graeme Turner , Intensities: The Journal of Cultural Media

"Haunted Media offers a history of one of the key metaphors used to understand electronic presence, that of it being in some ghost-like way 'alive', or connecting us to some alternative, and otherwise inaccessible, 'reality'. . . . [W]hat is surprising in Jeffrey Sconce's compelling account is that it is a metaphor that dates from the birth of electronic communication and, despite the absolute lack of evidence to support it, has proved remarkably resilient."

— Ian Saunders , Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

"[A] unique and important work. . . . Haunted Media is an important addition to the cultural history of communications and media technology. Sconce's work vividly captures the effect of communications technology on the popular imagination." — Andreas Kitzmann , Postmodern Culture

"[I]t is not often that one reads a book with such pleasure."

— Andrew Murphie , Theory & Event

"I really like what Sconce has done here. . . . [A] valuable contribution. . . . By offering his fresh take on current postmodern debates he surely risked making more than a few academic enemies. Nevertheless, it's a risk I am glad he took." — Dougie Bicket, Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies

“Death, desire and distance are Jeffrey Sconce's companions in this truly spooky journey through the ‘troubling afterlife of modernity.’ His brilliant and beautifully written history of the uncanny powers ascribed to the electronic media is a wonderful catalogue of popular fantasies. But more profoundly it is a symptomatology of media theory too. In fact and fiction alike we are caught up in wild imaginings that seek transcendance in transmission, from the ether to the Internet. Where redemption is sought from the ‘liveness’ of technology, Sconce advises caution. Or, as one of the quirky spirits he unearths implores via radio, ‘bring a halibut!’ ” — John Hartley, Queensland University of Technology

“Sconce offers an original and productive examination of the diverse social responses to 150 years of electronic communication. The result is an important and evocative book, notable for both its insights and its engaging style.” — William Boddy, author of Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics

“This is a powerful, compelling, and historically informed analysis of popular representations of electronic presence. Sconce has a rare ability to write about complex cultural phenomena in a poetic fashion, offering the reader a fascinating counterpart to existing scholarship in this area.” — Michael Curtin, author of Redeeming the Wasteland: Television Documentary and Cold War Politics


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Price: $26.95

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