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The immediates

 

Text by Hannah Zeavin

The figure of the telepath haunts modern science and psychoanalysis, caught between fraudulence and fantasy, perhaps showing how mediation, and its absence, have long co-constructed one another.

 

About ten years ago, announcements of breakthroughs in computer-mediated telepathy started appearing with greater and greater frequency. From the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to university medical schools, from the National Science Foundation to Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a wide range of projects with aims as disparate as disintermediated warfare and prostheses promised new ways to read the thoughts of the other as our own – even as experiments remain just that.

The mind-reading computer has long been a holy grail for technologists and parapsychologists alike. Now, that object of intense speculation is slowly becoming something of a reality. Since 1950, when Alan Turing set out the conditions for his famous eponymous test to determine if a computer programme could pass as human, technologists have had to worry about interference from a peculiar kind of cheater: the telepath. Turing was seemingly serious in his angst – despite his commitment to science and mathematics, or alongside them, Turing believed telepaths were real presences among us. Whereas the Turing Test was made to see how well a machine might imitate a human, Turing also believed that a very small subset of telepathic humans could pass as machines. Telepathy thus backed onto the mechanical – one presented as the other. Computation was, on this understanding, a particular kind of mediation that was so speedy and so accurate as to escape mediation itself. How could we disambiguate the human from the machine if the human was already superhuman, beyond our scientific ken? Turing generated separate protocols for identifying a telepath and held their possibility out as an exception to his mechanical test. He knew the so-called “imitation game” could not withstand the play of premonition.

That a telepath might interfere with the field of AI, even at its beginnings, might seem rather strange. But the 19th century’s spiritualist fever didn’t break so much as go dormant in laboratories, only to smuggle itself into the work of our most brilliant mid-century technologists. The technological and the telepathic – when a human poses as a computer or when wrought by computation itself – have long proceeded together, even as they’ve been held out as antonyms. The telepath, that strange figure of the occult, haunts scientific research, even as those sciences – including psychoanalysis – often carry the appellation  “pseudo”. It might be that the perceived lack of mediation – a telepath instantly able to read the thoughts of the other – and the height of mediation (here, early AI) have long co-constructed one another.

Media theorist Anna Kornbluh writes, in her latest book Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism, “Immediacy crushes mediation. It is what it is.” Immediacy, which she argues is the dominant aesthetic style of our present, also betrays our most ardent, dominating wish: for immediacy’s instantaneity, its urgency, its flow. To be and become instant ourselves. Our current styles take on those of the technologised telepath. Our fanta-sies of the seer, the remote viewer, the clairvoyant – let’s call them “the immediates” – inform our very aims for media in the present. It is this function of the telepath which we envy now, coveting the frictionless feeling of an encounter with the world without mediation.

Most clearly, the immediates show us our own desire for what Kornbluh describes as the a priori condition of our present: our wish to experience “emancipation from mediation”. The figure (and fantasy) of the telepath shows us our most ardent wish: to communicate without communicating.

Yes, we’ve had fortune tellers forever, but with modern mediation came modern imaginations of extrasensory perception. The productive fiction of “the immediates” appears in history in conjunction with the telephone, telegraph and phonograph. It is no coincidence that the medium (as in a séance) and the medium (as in, the mode in which you’re reading this) share a name. There is no such thing as immediacy without mediation; not just as a foil, but as the condition of appearance itself. The immediates promised to supplant mediation by becoming mediums, offering themselves as human forms of immediacy. People with these special powers have been dreamed through and against mediation for the last 100 years or more.

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Modern media and the immediates were born together, the language of the former supplying not only the metaphors, but the contextual fantasy of the latter. Morse’s telegraph was followed swiftly by people who could send and receive “spiritual telegraphs” – those who could open up a link to the beyond to receive messages from the dead. The actual reformulation of time and space by telecommunications, which were perceived as nearly instant, almost immediate, opened up yet more dimensions to be explored, to channel. The difference between distance and death narrowed. Media historian Jeffrey Sconce writes in his germinal book Haunted Media (2000) that it was this “collective fantasy of telepresence that allowed a nation to believe more than 150 years ago that a little girl could talk to the dead over an invisible wire.” Sconce notes that the telegraph and the séance (often referred to as a spiritual battery) appeared not only in close historical proximity, but in a moment where “few distinctions [were] made between what would shortly become the antithetical domains of physics and metaphysics.” Technology was understood to have occult powers. The idea of the spiritual telegraph was nearly a redundancy in terms. So it was with a succession of media: the (occult) medium would wind its way to the heart of the new medium. As film historian Tom Gunning argues, the romantic life sciences and the occult rhymed everywhere as they mixed in early filmic media. Much like the microscope before it, film allowed us to see both what was invisible and what was visible, and so the genre conventions of the occult structured much of early photography and silent cinema’s metaphors.

By the 20th century, the mechanical powers of technology lent credence to the supernatural powers of the immediates. No longer did spiritualism corner the market on mixing the immediate figure (telepath) with new forms of mediacy (telegraphy). Now, science helped separate out new forms of communication from the occult even as many technologists and spiritualists still trafficked in these practices in private. Some 50 years after the telegram, as psychoanalysis was elaborated to become the dominant theory of the human mind, other forms of occult phenomena found their analogue in media and in mind. The immediate – and mediacy – each became the beloved but vexed double of the analyst. Sigmund Freud and many of his followers heavily borrowed both from new forms of relating (the conversation on a telephone call, the erasure practices of the mystic writing pad) to formulate what the mind might do or the encounter between patient and analyst might be. At the same time, Freud was fixated on the immediate’s modes of occult communication. Automatic writing – receiving messages from the beyond – became Freud’s version of automatic speech, or the model for free association. Thought transference, i.e. telepathy, was redescribed as clinical transference. The early analysts fully participated in séance; many of them were card-carrying members of the new Society for Psychical Research – which had as its symbol the very same trident, for psi, that Freud used to represent the “psy” of psychoanalysis in shorthand. What could happen when two people could communicate without speech, perhaps without presence, one doing the bidding of the other, became the crucial scene for psychoanalysts. Even as the immediates promised to rid of us of the need for any hermeneutics of suspicion and thus the profession altogether, psychoanalysts remained entranced.

The telepath then points us to the impossibility of disimbricating mediacy and immedicacy in our own fantasies of the same. Before we could have the flatness of immediacy, the immediate was intimately co-produced by mediation. Rather than immediates being free from mediation, they often relied on it, especially to prove their skills (or falsify them). As media theorist John Durham Peters notes, mediums employed a diversity of media for spanning the chasm, including “table turning, writing, speaking, drawing, singing, dancing.” When séances turned out to be bunk, it was often through discovery of the mediation underpinning the medium. Rudimentary hearing aids, say, might be conveying a whispered message, not from beyond but from elsewhere in the room (Freud experienced this disappointment firsthand in the middle of his famous apartment on Berggasse Strasse). Immediates harnessed media to do their work – and fears over mediation turning everyone into immediates abounded.

Mediacy and immediacy, physics and metaphysics, visibility and invisibility, psi, sci, and psy, the rhymes between these supposed antipodes multiply outwards even as increasingly the figure of the immediate was understood to be the stuff of charlatanism. We merely live in the aftermath of this conjunction. Without the fantasy of no mediation – all channel, all presence, all signal, all meaning, all communication – we might never have the kinds of immediate media we’re contained by (or trapped in) now. While much of these tensions emerge, as Peters points out, at the height of the Victorian death cult, with its deep investment in haunting and all forms of memento mori, the immediates didn’t merely tarry with the dead – they removed the friction between modes of living and death. It is what is – even when it’s impossible.

 

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Unlike immediacy, the immediates aren’t what they are. They are what they are not. But nonetheless, many wanted in on the fantasy of them. Research, perhaps belatedly, flourished in laboratory settings. If late capitalism gives us the style of immediacy, as Kornbluh observes, we’ve been late for a while, with the term used to describe “this different sameness for more than a century … from post–Great War market integration to postwar prosperity to 1970s stagflation to millennial leverage busts.” Immediate research kept us company in this long durée. From Freud’s death in 1939, before which he proclaimed he wished he had pledged all of himself to understanding psi instead of psy, to Alan Turing’s imitation game in 1950 and beyond, many have sought to isolate the immediates, and harness them if they proved legitimate in their powers. While mind readers were still of interest, now with television and cinema came an interest in those who might read images at distance – those who could mediate distance without media at all.

Across the 1930s and 1940s, in the hallowed halls of Stanford, Princeton and Duke, tests were used to isolate the immediates – especially those professing telaesthesia, or the ability to travel elsewhere without leaving the room. Decades after Turing sought to secure his work from the telepath, research continued. For more than 20 years, the CIA has sponsored a variety of programmes into occultic research, focused on remote viewing for intelligence-gathering, making 100 studies between 1985 and 1995 alone. Here, too, immediates were confused with media: the remote viewers were “senders” – sending themselves elsewhere, rather than their thoughts. What they received was open to interpretation, usually of a skeptical sort.

Were they frauds? Most thought so. Yet there was so much investment – psychic and economic – in the figure of the immediate. And those investments continued, long past when the most unexplainable phenomenon becomes the most intelligible. Perhaps this is what Kornbluh means when she says we must demand from ourselves more mediation and less immediacy – the scam is, after all, a kind of immediate play even if it takes a while to see it clearly. But our desire to not see the telepath for what they are demands we then ask what we were so attached to finding. Why might the desire to be an immediate, to isolate the immediates, to harness their power, persist despite so much social change? What does it tell us about immediacy, mediation and media now?

Kornbluh’s focus is on how the style of old media is visible in the new – fiction, television. But as a feeling it long predates, and also extends into, our present, with our LLMs and experiments in hooking computer to brain. These forms of immediacy, as seen in the immediate, cast-off old forms of mediation like narrative, shifting instead to the speed and a flatness of asked, generated, and answered. But much like the immediates themselves, these immediate media struggle with hallucination and failure, even as others insist that there is a there there.

Caught between fraudulence and fantasy, the immediates refract back to us our economic attachments, both political and libidinal. For, as Kornbluh writes, “The ideology of immediacy holds a kernel of truth: we are fastened to appalling circumstances from which we cannot take distance, neither contemplative nor agential, every single thing a catastrophe riveting our attention.” The immediates – and us with a digital proxy of their powers – might just be secured from it at the very least, or, possibly, do something about it.

If media are understood as prosthesis, perhaps we might re-see media instead as granting us extra sensory perception. The dream of being able to think the thought of the other as one’s own, to see what one cannot see for oneself through the mind of the other, to read the future before it is written, to precognise that which has not yet been cognised, is to extend and undo human limit. If the work of being a human alive is to formulate, reformulate, and face our limits, the immediates promise as a class that we don’t have to do this work. We can go without limit, we can get beyond it.

The medium and media, the immediate and mediacy, might appear together, when, in Kornbluh’s words, “the mediations of society miscarry so systematically, it begins to look as if mediation itself is to blame.” This was no clearer than in times of mass death and destruction – when the cult of death was replaced with a death cult. The promise of the immediates, then, is that this reality can be changed, can be shifted. But we’ve given up their fantasy for the reality of a paradoxically assisted immediacy. In so doing, we’ve ceded our non-fantastical powers to play through reality, to mediate it, making its contours and forms anew.  ◉