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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media Into the Twenty-first Century

Posted by Jenny Davidson, Guest Author, on 04/10/07 at 08:08 PM

This is a guest post by Jenny Davidson. You may know her from her blog, Light Reading. She is the author of several books, including a forthcoming children’s book that sounds rather interesting to the Management. The Management likes how a short summary of her new novel interdigitates with certain other data; and there the two hands sit - with a certain satisfaction, not to say an air of finality - in the lap of the sidebar; the fingers of each lightly drumming on the other, I should imagine. "Sigmund Freud is a radio talk-show crank, cars run on hydrogen and the most prominent scientists experiment with new ways of contacting the dead. I teach in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University." And if you believe that, let me tell you: prof. Davidson has very kindly provided us with a review of what sounds to the Management like an interesting book, by Marina Warner.
- the Management

Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media Into the Twenty-first Century by Marina Warner (Oxford University Press), 469pp., £18.99

At one point in Marina Warner’s stimulating new book on the history of spirit and its embodiments in modern Europe, the author asks to see a sample of ectoplasm captured from a medium in a 1939 séance and catalogued in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research. “Are you sure?” responds the librarian. “It’s very nasty.” The box, when it arrives, contains four yards of dressmakers’ silk, washed and ironed but still creased and blood-stained; using a post room scale, Warner learns its weight—236 grams—and places herself thereby in the tradition of the rationalist investigators of the spirit whose work she at once applauds and deplores (299). Her dismay at the ways privileged (and mostly male) psychic researchers incited abject displays by trance mediums who were mostly female and socially subordinate does not, fortunately, render her so scrupulous as to hold back the gruesome details (one scientist speculated a particular medium’s “emanations” were made of “an animal’s lung tissue cut to resemble a human hand”) (303). Though the subject of ectoplasm “now tends to provoke involuntary laughter, shivers, and, on closer look, real horror,” Warner observes, it represents an important chapter in her story about the imagination’s summoning of spirits in European modernity (299-300): “Unlike any of the preceding vehicles of spirit, ectoplasm’s affinities verge on the category of bodily wastes, palpable and tangible, emphatically not sublimed matter: it leaked and bubbled and flowed from the medium’s innards” (295).

Warner’s own sympathetic imagination leads her to plumb the depths of these psychic ventures for the “constellation of knowledges” that drove such summonings, considering even fleshly incarnations that now seem bizarre or frankly laughable on the sensible premise that “the spectres who haunt someone or some time or some place tells [sic] us about what mattered then, to them, there” (246). Undergirding the book’s cultural enterprise is an appealing sense of urgency, and Warner in wise and temperate fashion inveighs against the kinds of spectral disembodiment that have come to seem constitutive of life in the digital age, with fictions of possession and unstable identity figuring more densely in popular culture than at any time since the first wave of the Gothic at the end of the eighteenth century. Warner shows that the quest for spirit has flourished in the medium of rational modernity, a clear invalidation of any dualistic conception of modernity as one endless light-saber duel between the forces of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. Spirits take form in the world and will continue to do so; Phantasmagoria’s mandate is to chronicle “the life of spirit forms, their habitual vehicles, and their vicissitudes in modernity” (12).

This latest installment in Warner’s career-spanning investigation of image and embodiment contains twenty-seven chapters organized under ten rubrics, “vehicles” for spirit—“Wax,” “Clouds,” “Ether,” “Ectoplasm”—whose names sound like the section headings in an instruction manual for angelic photographers. Warner promises to treat spirit forms as a large-scale collaborative “work of art continuing over time, similar to a cathedral or another grand and sacret artefact”(12). The motivating paradox of her archeology of spirits inheres in the strange fact that while ‘spiritual’ incarnations such as religious effigies are often distinctly solid and present and corporeal, forces like electricity and gravity—quintessential subjects of modern scientific inquiry—remain “mysterious, elusive, and ethereal,” (6) a magical inversion which leaves faint traces of amazement and perplexity like snail’s casts throughout the book.

The term Fantasmagorie seems to have been coined by the showman-inventor Etienne-Gaspard Robertson in Paris during the years immediately following the Revolution. (His date of birth is given here, nonsensically, as 1863 (148), one of a number of minor chronological slips.) Robertson’s son-et-lumière moving-picture show featured a device called the Fantascope, a magic lantern mounted on rollers so as to project an image that appeared to swell and lunge forward directly into the audience. The Terror-inspired special effects included the severed head of Danton, adapted from his death mask, projected onto smoke and then fading away to leave behind the outline of a skull. (Shades of the appearance in the sky above the Quidditch World Cup of “a colossal skull, comprised of what looked like emerald stars, with a serpent protruding from its mouth” and blazing in a haze of green smoke!)  Robertson painted images on black backgrounds so that they appeared to float in space, his screens made of “thin gauzes, saturated in wax, so that his phantoms were further dematerialized by the diaphanousness and translucency of the material on which they appeared” (148). More beguiling even than the peepshow or the panorama, those other visual mainstays of an age before cinema, the phantasmagoria stimulated audiences by creating the illusion of animated life.

Covering some of the same ground as Simon During’s work on secular magic and the logic of modern enchantment, Warner persuasively shows the phantasmagoria occupying “a transitional zone between the sublime and the Gothic, between the solemn and the comic, and between seriously intended fears and sly mockery of such beliefs”:

Although it bears a sharp flavour of its times, its aftertaste lingers, as mentioned earlier, in much of today’s popular entertainment, with its cast of spectres and bogeys. Yet Robertson protested that his ‘illusions were designed as an antidote to superstition and credulity’, and claimed that he was staging a rational exhibition in order to expose the mechanism behind such spectres of the mind. (153)

This may have motivated the high-sounding “pseudo-learning” of the names projectors chose for the new technologies of illusion—Eidophysicon, Eidothaumata, Ergascopia, Phantascopia (153)—and reveals the intimacy of the relationship between magic practice and magic exposure: a doubling most famously made flesh, perhaps, in the sole person of conjuror and professional debunker Harry Houdini.

Elsewhere, in a particularly rich section titled “Clouds,” Warner chronicles the phenomenon of fata morgana—castles in the air—and the human desire to make visual wonders into legible incarnations of spirit, manifestations conceived initially in occult or supernatural terms but later transformed into signs that could be deciphered by ratiocination or scientific analysis. Warner’s most striking insights tend to cluster around objects of investigation responsive to the art-critical mode (the scuptural aspects of wax give her something to sink her teeth into, as it were, a simile that appropriately recalls a sort of vampiric dental work). She offers a particularly perceptive and striking treatment of the English watercolorist Alexander Cozens’ quest in the 1770s and 1780s to capture the flux of clouds on paper. In A New Method for Assisting the Invention of Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1784-85), Cozens advised students to crumple up paper and dribble ink on it, then fold it and meditate on the marks, using the blots to enhance their imagination (his title page quotes the famous line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra—“Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish”). Here is Warner’s analysis, at once crisp and passionate:

Nobody coming across this work without prior knowledge would be able to date it to the late eighteenth century. His blots are vigorous, near-abstract splotches and streaks, tending ever more intensely to condensation and simplicity; the strokes of his brush arc and twitch with a vitality that announces the metaphysical abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky or the action painting of Jackson Pollock, while the very art of seeing properly, as Cozens practised it, was most energetically adopted by the Surrealists, in Max Ernst’s frottages and décalcomanies, and more recently by artists such as Adam Dant and his ‘Bureau for the Investigation of the Subliminal Image.’ (112)

Twenty-seven chapters of this sort of thing, however, can prove overwhelming. Warner’s lists are sometimes dazzling, but more often she falls into a genre- and chronology-defying mode of listing that verges on self-parody: “While Hamlet and Antony were cloud-gazing, Italian and Dutch painters were picturing clouds as they had always been pictured, much to the later disgust of John Ruskin. . . .” (110-111)

Warner persuasively connects the cultural history of clouds to Rorschach blots and other forms of fanciful picture-interpretation, offering among other treats suggestive discussions of Andy Warhol’s reproductions of Rorschach patterns on immense canvases and of Victor Hugo’s Pliages (foldings) and Taches, stain-paintings in whose sepia and sable washes the novelist discerned Gothic landscapes of crags and castles (315). Here, again, Warner emphasizes the constitutive contradiction embodied in the fact “that the rational resistance to subjectivity undergirds the paranormal search for external explanations”: the rejection of meaning in cloud-visions powers a “quest for impersonal and objective forces that would explain random patterns, chaotic formlessness, and other phenomena that eluded full understanding” (314). All good things must come to an end, and Warner sensitively mourns the loss of the cloud trope in an era where its best-known incarnations—the mushroom cloud, smog—no longer “convey the unpolluted, uncontaminated zone of spirit” (373). “[S]pirits follow aesthetic trends with the same unconsciousness as popular culture,” Warner notes elsewhere, “and their manifestations can be dated—from effects of style, in colour and composition” (229). The conventions for representing the phantom as a pale immaterial wraith, for instance, go back to the Middle Ages; cloud may have been supplanted in our own time by the clean alphanumeric strings of programmers’ code.

Warner’s language for talking about images has been honed over decades of thoughtful and penetrating critical practice into an extraordinarily powerful and precise instrument. “Grimacing, gritting her teeth, and screwing her eyes tight,” Warner observes of the medium Eva C.’s technique for producing recognizable psychic portraits of real people, “she breathed out their image on muslins and veils from her ears, head, ears [sic], navel, and breasts, exactly as if the thought-pictures in her mind were imprinting the image, like Christ’s icon on the miraculous veil of Veronica, on to shapeless, cloudy stuff from the higher world” (232). Her affinity for the modes of viewing associated with art criticism is attractively displayed in her suggestion that the sheer gloves and stockings which certain materializing mediums caused to be “extruded in paraffin wax under the imprinting power of spirit visitors” can be thought of as “spectral casts [that] echo the guarantee of authenticity” offered by death masks and wax-works (291). She also offers a host of actual images, including the extraordinary painting (reproduced in a color plate) in which Correggio depicts Io ravished by Jupiter in the shape of a cloud (“emerging from the soft indigo-grey massed mist as if he were consubstantial with cloud,” in Warner’s happy formulation (84)).
But Warner’s peerless instinct for what’s interesting and important sometimes outstrips her ability or her inclination to weave the stuff of her discussion into a coherent argument. Who can resist the charms of a chapter touching on Marat’s death-mask, the anatomical waxes used to teach eighteenth-century medical students, Cornelia Parker’s sculpture “The Maybe” (a tableau mounted at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1995 in which Tilda Swinton “lay sleeping in a glass case all day” so that “we the visitors could watch her for as long as we liked” (53)) and Madame Tussaud’s feel for “the frisson of personal effects” (the coach Napoleon used at Waterloo, “the chewed toffee from the pram of a murdered baby” (40))? But Warner’s main attempt to tie together the sacred and secular histories of waxmaking, from saint’s effigies through forensic science, commemorative portraiture, contemporary sculpture and so forth, involves that by-now familiar language of inversion: “Paradoxically, the more scientific the approach, the deeper the marvellous character of the work becomes, synthesizing sacred and profane bodily image making” (31). To observe a paradox is not the same thing as to construct an argument, and as Warner accumulates ever more material, the lack of a clear agenda comes to be increasingly strongly felt.

Warner’s great strengths as a critic include her aesthetic and moral seriousness, a well-judged willingness (when it will augment her scholarly discussion) to mobilize personal experience in the anecdotal mode, an acute sensitivity to visual detail and an equally sharp sense of the things that matter. Among her weaknesses, though, must be numbered an alarming tendency to fall back on vague formulations like “paradox” or “inversion” rather than developing an argument, an overreliance on observing proximity rather than unpacking connections (“It is significant that outward portraiture developed into passionate musing on inward characteristics” (35)), and a tendency to pile example upon example and adjective upon adjective so that the immensely wide knowledge that should be one of her greatest strengths instead itself becomes a weakness. She has learned a great deal from Roland Barthes, and is in some respects his worthy successor, but she lacks his intellectual precision and economy of style, and her more aphoristic formulations tend to sound strained or over-earnest:

The horizons widened; the new means for grasping and reproducing time’s flow, bringing it from the past into the present through photography, have had, and still have, immeasurable consequences for human experience; the layering of memories through material records that followed has had immeasurable repercussions on consciousness itself, as well as on our ideas about the individual. (265)

Talk of immeasurable consequences and repercussions is all very well in its way, but it is hard not to sigh for some more concrete conclusions amidst this wooliness.

Warner consistently refrains, whether by choice or temperament, from imposing order on what is after all by definition the most elusive stuff imaginable. Alluding to the ways that the confusion of contemporary conditions has destabilized our idea of personhood, for instance, she allows as how her own book “presents an aspect of this chaos” and “tries to explore some of the work of imagination in envisioning the invisible and giving form to the impalpable” (20). The dreaded phrases “trying to think through” (337) and “worth teasing out” (347) make their appearance, matched by a concomitant vagueness about the underlying rationale of what’s included and what’s left out of the book. Is the on-the-whole persuasive observation that “[t]he spectral self of contemporary mass media belongs in the same current as the popular rise of apocalypse, through the uses of imagery that evoke both, and the attendant disregard for the reality of flesh, mortality, and pain” (337) reason enough to include a whole chapter on apocalypse? Is the undoubted popularity of zombies as “pre-eminent figures of the dissociated and denatured self” (354) grounds for giving them their own chapter also?

Phantasmagoria falls awkwardly between the modes of academic writing and of cultural history suited to a broader readership. Warner’s prose is always clear and interesting—she displays an exceptional feel for appealing and engaging topics—but the proportion of detail to argument is too high; the general reader will likely find too much information and analysis and footnoting at the expense of narrative. The paradox of Warner’s approach, indeed (to borrow her own favored mode of analysis), is that the thoughts of a writer so much in tune with the marvellous and the uncanny should materialize in so very rational an avatar.

It is hard to say exactly who this book has been written for: not, perhaps, for the reviewer, or at least not for anyone who prefers to read a book straight through from beginning to end, given the glitches in terms of its stitching together into a whole. The most annoying symptom of the material’s past life as lectures and essays arises from Warner’s habit of mentioning a figure blithely by name in one chapter as if we already know who he is, then properly introducing him several chapters later with dates and brief biography as though it is our first encounter. Athanasius Kircher is quoted on page 89, for instance, then identified on page 95 as “[t]he Jesuit Athanasius Kircher,” while his dates are only given a page later. Although “the astronomer Camille Flammarion” is introduced on page 270 as “an early popular science fiction writer,” we have actually already met him on page 239—“Camille Flammarion the astronomer, an inspired popularizer of his subject and a pioneer science fiction writer”—and again, briefly, on page 260 (“the astronomer Camille Flammarion”). Warner’s writing also displays a certain sloppiness vis-à-vis transitions. The zombie material particularly shows the marks of careless stitching. “A quarter of a century after the film I Walked with a Zombie, another oddity became a cult movie,” Warner writes [365], her elevated diction—“a quarter of a century” is a far loftier phrase than “twenty-five years”—distracting the reader from the lack of an argumentative or narrative link. Another irritating tic involves Warner’s use of a parenthetical “(!)” to mark something comical or outrageous, a technique jarring enough in a work of otherwise considerable decorum that the characters might easily be mistaken for a type-setter’s error. (160, 259)

But these soul-eroding quibbles are in the end just quibbles, second and third thoughts that—while they may cause a temporary breach in the state of absorption that good books induce in their readers—don’t detract significantly from the major accomplishment on view. Just when you’re most fed up with Warner’s slightly maniacal listing (“In the years of the Bomb, of the cold War, of the Cuban missile crisis, the first wave of Tolkien-mania and Narnia’s success, Frank Kermode was also thinking about apocalypse” (348)) or her grandly evasive flourishes (“The status of reality within movies is, of course, too complex to unfold completely here” (350)), she catches you short with the grace and aptness of her insight. Consider her thoughts on “the reprieve of disbelief” we experience when we watch films of apocalyptic violence. It’s a double reprieve, insofar as we know apocalypse to be only happening on the screen, and not happening at all, really, to the scene’s actors and participants: otherwise it would be unbearable. “It is interesting,” she adds as an aside, “that in watching filmed Armageddon, the horses focus the sharpest worries, at least for me, because they can perform, they can be trained to make mock battle, but performance is not the same for them, and in some important way, it is always happening for real for them.” (351)

Asked by friends for advice on how best to raise their young son, John Locke urged them to “be sure to preserve his tender Mind from all Impressions and Notions of Sprites and Goblins, or any fearful Apprehensions in the dark.” The patron saint of Enlightenment warned that stories of “Raw-Head and Bloody Bones, and such other Names, as carry with them the Idea’s of some thing terrible and hurtful” introduce into children’s minds “Bug-bear Thoughts” which “frequently haunt them with strange Visions” and make them fear “Shadows and Darkness all their Lives after.” Beneath the sensible advice lurks a lingering awareness that reason can never fully banish the uncanny, only fend it off for a little while (as in Goya’s “magnificent warning,” invoked early in Phantasmagoria: “The dream of reason produces monsters” (17-18)). Warner’s affinity for the marvelous clues her in to the fundamentally wayward or ungovernable nature of the interactions between souls and bodies. At one point she describes her own puzzlement during a visit to the anatomical waxworks collection at the University of Bologna: “Nothing resisted investigation, nothing provoked horror or pity. When I asked the doctor who was taking us round if anyone had ever fainted at the sights, he looked at me in dismay and said, ‘Why should anyone feel shocked?’ He then cried out, ‘This is knowledge, this is the Enlightenment!’” (34) Her sense of wonder remains admirably undimmed, in other words, even in the supposedly disenchanted world of Weberian modernity.

One of the book’s most memorable scenes consists of a historical episode captured in the minutes of a séance conducted with Eusapia Paladina, the most famous materializing medium of her day, in Cambridge in 1895 by certain members of the Society for Psychical Research. The eminent academics F. W. H. Myers (poet and theorist of human personality) and Henry Sidgwick (holder of the Knightsbridge Chair of Moral Philosophy and author of the influential Methods of Ethics) and their respective wives were among the sitters. The sight of the moral philosopher on the floor under the table holding the medium’s feet and knees to avert fraud, the minuted abbreviations “Prof Sidgwick” and “Eu” literalizing the power relations embodied in the physical postures, offers a perversely edifying tableau of reason at the feet of the uncanny, an iconic moment in the history of body and soul that this book so richly chronicles.


Oddly, I can’t tell whether I want to read Phantasmagoria now.  Interesting and well-written on the one hand, dull and turgid on the other ... but I can say this.  It seems that this would be the kind of book improved by a careful study of a literary journalist like John McPhee.  Interlacing the arcane with the mundane so as to render the former understandable is his singular talent.  How else to account for the success of Annals of the Former World, in which he recounts the geological history of the United States while traveling across it?  (Having taught literary journalism for four years likely numbers me among the too-annoyed-to-keep-reading crowd.  Still, the description of the horse’s experience of filmed Armageddon is so brilliant I’m almost willing to put up with it.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/11/07 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Testing, to see if we are having some sort of comment problem.

By John Holbo on 04/11/07 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, now that I know comments are working ...

Jenny, I don’t quite get this line: “Warner shows that the quest for spirit has flourished in the medium of rational modernity, a clear invalidation of any dualistic conception of modernity as one endless light-saber duel between the forces of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment.”

I’m not sure what is being denied here (no, really. I’m actually just not sure what you are saying.) Is the position being denied one that makes an artificial periodization: there was the Enlightenment, that would be the 18th Century. Then there was the counter-Enlightenment, after the Enlightenment was basically over? If that’s it, then this seems like a straw man. Because most people who buy into the lightsaber duel, as it were, don’t buy it on the grounds that the two duelists span some clear temporal divide. It sounds to me as if Warner has found what those she is critiquing would have expected her to find. So, while it is interesting, it doesn’t really settle any Enlightenment/counter-Enlightenment debates. Comments?

By John Holbo on 04/11/07 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for thoughtful questions and comments - I’m finishing a conference paper tonight & have to leave at the crack of dawn tomorrow, so I’m afraid I won’t have time to answer properly till I’m home Friday evening!  Apologies - more TK ...

(Hasty answer: Scott, John McPhee gets lots of editing, and part of the issue with this academic crossover books is that the culture--both from writer and editor points-of-view does not actually involve substantive cutting, reworking etc.  I think this is a pity, but I also don’t think it will change.  John, I think you are right to single out that sentence as overly fancy!  I was really trying to say something pretty simple - it’s not a periodization point about Enlightenment - Counter-Enlightenment, just a rather obvious/superficial observation about the fact that if you happened lazily to think that people inclined either to a superstitious worldview or to a rational one, you would be caught short & have to change your assumptions by the ways that the hyper-rational spirit investigators are also the most passionate believers in the spirit world, life after death, etc.  Could have used some editing myself, I think!

By Jenny Davidson on 04/11/07 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

THAT is a whole lot of writing there, Jenny.....

By on 04/12/07 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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