The Technology of Magic

John Benedict Buescher. The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land. University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
This is a book which perhaps reverses cliches: not so much a sufficiently advanced technology resembling magic, but a sufficiently advanced magic resembling technology; not so much as what starts out as tragedy ending in farce, as what starts in farce ends in the darkest tragedy. It also turns on its head all our preconceptions about those staid respectable Victorian ancestors.

For this is a tale of magical technology, radical politics, spiritualism, channelling, free love and guru-led cults, all the cliches of the modern world turned up a volume. John Murray Spear was an advanced radical clergyman in the Universalist Church who in the 1840s was in to all the radical causes of his day: abolitionism, prison reform, abolition of the death penalty, women's rights, etc. In the course of this work he got beaten up by a mob in Portland, Maine and suffered a severe head injury. Slowly after this he seems to have got more eccentric, more reckless, and when a few years later spiritualism became all the rage, he became a spiritual healer and medium.

John Murray Spear
Not any old medium, mind you, bringing words of comfort from dear old Aunt Sadie, rather he became a channeler. Not for him the cliches of pious wisdom from Ramatha; no, he channels a gang of scientists, led by Benjamin Franklin, called The Electrifiers. They teach a new physics and give him visions of a fabulous new technology. This is not technology as we know it, it is more akin to Renaissance magic, a kind of magical prevision of the technological world to come. Much of this is at a level of surreal madness that few can have reached before or since: boats made in the shape of giant ducks powered by the psychic energy of couples having sex for example, or sewing machines constructed by a mixture of performance art, ritual magic and, you've got it, sex again!

At the heart of all of this is the ultimate magical machine, powered by Lord knows what and somehow gestated by a woman; this is to be the machine as Messiah, the great liberating machine, a machine which will reproduce like a living organism and supply all human wants. And here is where things start to get creepy, for what this scientifically illiterate mid-nineteenth century clergyman and his gang of cranks are talking about is a universal, self-replicating, replicating machine, a Von Neumann machine. There are also images of what today we would call human-machine interface, cyborgs, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, radio telescopes, radio towers, and 'young female mediums who will receive messages from afar' (telephone operators?).

This is clearly a classical cargo cult, the product of a period in which the magic of the new technology is still essentially magic, but there are hints of this future technology, as though some book by a 21st century computer prophet had been sent back in a time machine, or a vision of the 22nd century seen through the eyes of a bunch of acid dropping hippies from the 1960s.

As one reads through Spear's often incomprehensible prose, the suspicion that he is suffering from some form of neurological damage, probably temporal lobe epilepsy, becomes pretty overwhelming. Can TLE allow glimpses into the future? Or is this an uncomprehending vision of a completely alien technology.

At first that is a beguiling idea, and Spears vision of a technology bringing about human liberation rather than oppression, of a democratic media, sexual and racial equality, looks attractive if rose-tinted, but soon the story darkens, and we see a prevision of Orwell. Free love turns out to mean quite the opposite, it means the guru or the state decides who will have sex with whom, the state decides who will have children and the state will raise them. Indeed childbearing will be industrialised and rationalised, so only the right kind of superior designer babies get born, A prevision of Brave New World, and of the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. This is not a future to be looked forward to.

Of course, as good, well brought up sceptical Magonians we should lay this fancy aside, but a 'rational' interpretation of Spear and his world is not much more comforting, for it suggests that the origins of many of what we imagine to be brand new avant-garde scientific, social and political ideas, founded on good rational principles, have frankly magical, occultist and deeply crazy roots. Cargo cults don't always emulate technology, sometimes technology emulates cargo cults.

I should point out that much of this is lost on Buescher who is a historian of religion, whose main interest is in Tibetan Buddhism. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 96, October 2007

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