Writing as Séance: Re-imagining the Textual Medium
David Prescott-Steed is a sound artist, writer, and Academic Fellow at LCI Melbourne in Australia. David's sound works have contributed to a range of international events, including the (h)ear XL II: Multimedia Sound Art Exhibition (2014, The Netherlands), the PNEM Sound Art Festival (2015, The Netherlands), Kinokophonography (2012-15, London, UK), The Politics of Ambience (2016, Oxford Brookes University, UK), and the National Gallery of Victoria’s Melbourne Now exhibition. He is the author of Tracing Invisible Lines: An Experiment in Mystoriography (Parlor Press, 2019) and The Psychogeography of Urban Architecture (Brown Walker, 2013). Other recent publications can be found in The Journal for Artistic Research, Atrium: A Journal of Academic Voices, Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory, and Textshop Experiments.
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Séance is a French word used to denote a meeting, a sitting or, in the context of theatre, a performance, an act. However, as far at its popular mythology goes, a séance entails a kind of writing that is complicit with the echoes of the past that, through some inexplicable compression of time, bulge or reverberate into the present. Central to the effect of such a meeting is a suspension of disbelief in the power of writing to conjure incomplete likenesses of deceased family members, or of strangers, or both.
A séance requires at least three people who have the shared goal of making contact with the spirits of the dead. Such gatherings are often held in a room that is secluded from visual and acoustic interference, and dimly lit (typically by candlelight, as if to offer some contemporary diorama of Plato's cave upon the walls of which distorted animations of worlds might be seen). Attendees of the séance will sit in a circle, perhaps around a table, and join hands. If a Ouija board is to be used, each participant will place one hand on the “planchette.” The first use of a planchette is a small flat piece of board, commonly heart-shaped with small castors on the base and a hole through which a pen or pencil can be mounted, that allow it to move over a flat surface for use in automatic writing. A hole in the planchette enables people to see through to the letters of the alphabet that are either printed on or engraved into the surface of the Ouija board. One of the attendees will act as the medium; the medium's role is to ask questions on behalf of the attendees, and everyone will watch as answers are spelled out. On June 10th 1853, Allan Kardec, who would later found the Spiritualist movement, documented the first known use of a planchette (French for “little plank”) at a table-tipping séance in Paris. According to Kardec (pp. x-xi), a "fervent partisan of the new phenomena,” who had grown tired of the common-place, laborious alphabet calling and rapped-responses, said:
“Fetch the little basket from the next room; fasten a pencil to it; place it upon a sheet of paper; put your fingers on the edge of the basket." This having been done, the basket, a few moments afterwards, began to move, and the pencil wrote, quite legibly, this sentence: —"I expressly forbid you repeating to anyone what I have just told you. The next time I write, I shall do it better."
This last line piques my interest enough to suspend disbelief, acknowledging the limits of mortal understanding, and consider the implications, that: 1) even after death, the quest for better writing skills survives, and 2) writing has a spectral quality. The first implication remains with humour. The second gives us something to think about in terms of what a writing practice, in the sense of a ritual, can be taken to mean in the immediate present. In terms of my own writing practice, right now, it is one that's better performed alone rather than in the company of other writers. Writing alone means that I can spend several hours at a stretch vocalising, using this as a strategy for determining how my fingertips hammer the keyboard; writing alone means that I can remain focused on the activity at hand without concern for how it might look; how I might appear or sound.
In this context, whatever is written is first mobilised by speech, and the mouth is moved in response to the imagination. But what is the prima materia from which the imagination begins its passage into materiality? Here, we are dealing with personal metaphysics of creativity; it is a topic on which Gregory Ulmer has offered considerable insight. When reviewing creativity research on inventors, Ulmer noticed that “imaginations tended to be composite assemblages of cultural materials.” This notion of assemblage lends itself to the social constructionist model of the self. Ulmer understood that if we could gain insight into our own assemblages—if we could learn something of what drives our creative acts—then, this insight could be used to focus and empower future projects; it could be used to initiate invention in terms of the construction we produce and call our art. Invention is highly prized in a dynamic, advanced-industrial culture. In Ulmer's view, it made sense to pursue insight into socio-cultural assemblages through language in general, and writing in particular, making this the basis of the creative practice-led research process known as the “Mystory.”
Mystorical writing engages three domains of discourse relevant to the life-narrative of the individual: professional, popular, and personal. In a mystory, the individual articulates these domains and measures them against ontological, epistemological and ethical considerations, with an aim to expose that individual's creative disposition, i.e., the “invariant principle” that inflects upon their creative decision making throughout life. In Ulmer’s words, “[a]n experiment in mystoriography derives its guidelines from the sciences and arts of our time, just as ‘history’ was invented in keeping with the naturalistic tenets of nineteenth-century science and art” (Teletheory 44). Mystoriography seeks to “recognize the peculiar configuration of possibility in one’s own moment [by] designating the nexus of history, politics, language, thought, and technology” (Ulmer, Teletheory 82). “Such an approach to history,” explains Byron Hawk, “is grounded in our particular, local experiences of time and place and looks to map them to larger, global histories through a new form of writing” (238).
In mystorical writing, the aforementioned domains of discourse inform an individual's image of wide scope, i.e., “an aesthetic embodiment of their attunement with the world” (Ulmer, in Weishaus).
An image of wide scope allows one to think across the various scenes of instruction; it compresses by finding the common element(s) that unites them. The image of wide scope becomes our guide to the unknown, our logic of invention, which Ulmer calls our Heuretic principles. (McLaughlin 65)
Since the publication of my own mystorical monograph, Tracing Invisible Lines (2019), I have had time to reflect upon how intimately entwined the past was in the present, the interspersion of memory, imagination and contemporary socio-cultural reference. This was fine; mystorical work does not require neat separation between past and present; it welcomes both synchronic and diachronic features (“together in time” and “through time”, respectively), which is at least in part necessary given that histories can only be perceived and conceived from the immediate present within which seem to be locked. Moreover, I have recently learned of the block universe theory of time, by which our universe is described describes “as a giant four-dimensional block of spacetime, containing all the things that ever happen” (Miller, cited in Ratner). The synchronic width of the present and the diachronic depths of the conceivable past exist in non-binary, undecideable attunement with each other. The more I took the past into consideration, the more I worked to translate it into the communicable form—writing—the more present it seemed to me to be. In short, I have become increasingly attuned with the hauntological nature of the project.
Do I write alone? I am not entirely sure. It is not unusual to consider one’s “making” as a conversation with dead and distant individuals. For example, Jeff Koons has said that his “Made in Heaven” series came out of his desire to engage in a dialogue with the French romantic tradition and artists such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher, “and even going back to someone like Masaccio” (Al Jazeera English). Nor it is unusual to recognise autobiographical writing as a kind of memorial to the past that inhabits us in the present. Yet, engaging in such abstract dialogues is an invariably fallible pursuit. Consider neuroscientist Daniela Schiller’s explanation regarding the fallibility of human memory, the problem being that “[e]ach time you retrieve a memory it undergoes this storage process . . . We don’t really remember the original; we remember the revised version” (Young Rojahn).
Even in the healthy human brain, memories are temporal decompositions that inhabit our lives each day. Ulmer has described the imagination as an a composite assemblage." I think we can evolve this notion by absorbing the neuroscientific insight, and instead speak of imaginative disassemblages. These temporal and spatial distortions, representations of absences that enter the materiality of the present through such communicative mediums as the spoken word and writing. They provide the raw data, the shadows that mobilise our creative acts of communication that are given expression in material reality.
The term hauntology appears in Derrida’s Spectres of Marx. Its etymological root is the French word hantise, a verb approximating the English 'haunting' that also expresses the return of ghosts, spirits, and spectres, i.e., "revenants" (3). For Derrida, the movements of revenants are productive, causational; the spectre “begins by coming back” (4). As Davis (373) puts it: “Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (373). The term hauntology was seeded in Derrida’s writing on the radicalisation of Marxist politics. But, so far as it was taken as the irreducible condition of being, the notion of hauntology reflected Derrida's broader interested in the way that everyday life is haunted by lost futures. In Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher rephrases this as the “slow cancellation of the future” (6). He points to a “confrontation with a cultural impasse; the failure of the future,” that is exposed once society realises that the future promised through constant progress has not happened, and yet the promise remains fundamental to the socio-cultural context of late capitalism that we inhabit—nevertheless, and always-already (“What Is Hauntology?” 16).
Since being used in Spectres of Marx, to denote the “disadjustment of the contemporary” (99), hauntology has become an important term in critical and psychoanalytic discourse, and applied more broadly to discourse on retro-fashion and nostalgia, sampling in electronic music and field recording, as part of a wide range of postmodern aesthetic practices. Here, we can apply it to the practice of writing in the contemporary context, with a focus on the mystorical work in terms of the researcher's subjective encounter with the present-absences of dispositional compositions.
In the context of a séance, writing is the mode by which an attempt is made to transgress the divide between the physical and the metaphysical. The planchette focuses an attempt to articulate a blurring of the boundaries between existence and non-existence; it is taken by believers to signify the tipping of one world into another, just as my maternal grandmother did, by the flicker of candle light in a private room in London in the post-WW2 decades as the community to which she belonged, like so many others in the horrendous aftermath of barbarism, did what it collectively could to navigate the quasi-Sartrean glimpse of nothingness and ameliorate the increasing untrustworthiness of the memories of loved ones who went into conflict and never came back.
Writing the image of wide scope, which is to say, inviting into writing the recurring motifs that move our creative projects, is noticeably hauntological. Due to the habituated technological processes of our time, mystorical writing often takes place in a digital realm via use of a keyboard and mouse, both of which cause words to appear—letter by letter—on the virtual page on the computer screen. Mystoric writing engages the phantoms of self and society that we cannot directly see but which move us. Given my own work in the mystorical arena, it is no surprise that much of my own writing deals with the intersections of self and society, of memory and imagination. It has recently extended to include writing about reading, by which I am referring to my encounter with the autobiographical work of Dora Russell (née Black; 3 April 1894 – 31 May 1986), British feminist, political activist, radical pedagogue, and second wife of Philosopher and Mathematical Logician, Bertrand Russell, The Right Honourable The Earl Russell.
Dora Russell is my cousin twice removed. Her autobiographical work, The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love, is my present focus for a major creative research project that continues to benefit from the momentum generated throughout the development of Tracing Invisible Lines. This new writing documents the experience of reading about the memories of a family member who I never met and so who, for me, exists only in the written form—her presence is invited into the maladjusted contemporary moment, albeit delimited by the words that I can vocalise and respond to by way of citations and recontextualisations. With this project, I am mindful of the anxiety of loss, stemming most immediately from the compromised condition of a forty year old book that is literally falling apart as I progress through its yellowed pages, its decomposition literally accelerated by the act of reading; I can see that the glue bond is failing, that the page block is separating from the paper spine. Reading, here, is a race against time before the communicative medium—the long since printed word—closes its gates, maybe forever, or at least until I can track down another copy, another book of representations, of shadows, of absent presences.
The project with which I am currently preoccupied in the background, is in some sense an attempt to tip the absences of the dead and unfamiliar-familial past into the present, to reach out to the shadows, though perhaps this is in vain. As it stands, in fleshing out the spectral quality of writing, whatever prima materia drives this effort, alerts the reader to the possibility of a direct correlation between séance and writing, whereby the séance occurs in the writing room, the keyboard is a Ouija, and the mouse that moves the pointer as if by magic across the visual field, is the plastic planchette for the digital age with which we may conjure our contingent mystories.
"Talk to Al Jazeera - Jeff Koons: High art or plain extravagance?" YouTube, uploaded by Al Jazeera English, 22 August 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHz3kbzRd7I.
Davis, Colin. "Hauntology, spectres and phantoms." French Studies, vol. 59, no. 3, 2005, pp. 373–379, https://doi.org/10.1093/fs/kni143. Accessed 15 May 2019.
Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx. Translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, 1994.
Fisher, Mark. "What Is Hauntology?" Film Quarterly. vol. 66, no. 1, 2012, pp. 16-24.
Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, 2014.
Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh University Press, 2007.
Kardec, Allan. The Spirits' Book. Translated by Emma A. Wood, Colby and Rich Publishers, 1893.
Mauer, Barry. "Curating the Mystory: Ideology and Invention in the Theory Classroom." Putting Theory into Practice in the Contemporary Classroom: Theory Lessons, edited by Becky McLaughlin, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, pp. 56-76.
Ratner, Paul. "New controversial theory: Past, present, future exist simultaneously." Big Think. 23 Sept. 2018. Accessed 14 May 2019.
Russell, Dora. The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love. Virago, 1977.
Ulmer, Gregory. Teletheory. Atropos Press, 2004.
Young Rojahn, Susan. “Memory Is Inherently Fallible, and That’s a Good Thing.” MIT Technology Review. 9 Oct. 2013. Accessed 15 May 2019.