Review of The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity

The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity
Jeffrey Sconce

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2019
448 pp., illus. 32 b/w. Trade, $109.95; paper: $29.95
ISBN: 978-1478000761; ISBN: 978-1478001065.

Reviewed by
Amy Ione
August 2019

The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce is a robust and multidimensional reminder of the complexity of human consciousness. Moving from Enlightenment studies of electricity and human anatomy to our 21st century digitally-connected globe, this interdisciplinary study asserts that delusions of electronic persecution have been a preeminent symptom of psychosis for over 200 years. One impressive feature of the study is how deftly Sconce weaves together case studies, literary source material, court cases, and popular media. Through this material he argues that we are moving toward an increasingly psychotic reality in which data practices will produce a world in which thought, reflection, and doubt will be disrupted by the very structures humans are putting in place.  In his view, the current melding of big data and political power is creating a situation in which it is becoming more difficult to isolate precisely how (or perhaps where) bodies, the mind, electronics, and information intersect. He draws a parallel between psychotic disembodiment and electronic simulations:

“So although psychiatry considers delusions a positive symptom of psychosis, their foundation in language precludes their providing any positivist proof of psychotic thinking. The ability of electronic media to provide ever more sophisticated simulations of voice and vision, often detached and disembodied from any discernable source, has only made the positivity of these symptoms more difficult to evaluate.” (p. 34)

The gist of the study is that technical delusions are states of mind that frequently center on suspicions about how electronics might operate in the administration of power — be it semiotic, energetic, or political. A prevailing idea is that electronics operate as weaponized media. Case studies outline how various electronic devices serve as black boxes, as power converters that mysteriously “inhabit” human consciousness and bring out psychoses or delusions somehow connected with technological devices. The technologies — energy converters — include electromagnetism, microwaves, and forms of energy deleterious to the body.

According to Sconce, technical delusions are a factor of modernity and have come about due to the stress of modern life.  He notes — and I believe he is creating one of many straw men here —  by the nineteenth century, the “stürm und drang” of crowded modern life included media’s acceleration, amplification, and accumulation of information. “To argue that human beings have always considered themselves stressed and yet, at the same time, eternally resilient in the face of technological upheaval is to posit a human subject living outside of history” (p. 17). As he explains:

“[D]elusions began to emerge in the early nineteenth century as electricity (along with its more occult cousin, magnetism) became a privileged site for merging historical currents of theology, natural philosophy, physiology, parapsychology, engineering, and communications into the hard technologies that constitute ‘the media.’ Electronics in this sense can be thought of as the politics of electricity.” (p. 14)

Essentially, as I discuss shortly, his view doesn’t address electricity fully. In any case, according to Sconce, modernity, media, and madness are symptoms of how the ego (or self) conceptualizes itself in relation to a rapidly changing environment of energy, information, and power. His larger concern is that before the digital age we could identify the specific devices in the narratives that psychotics offered and use them to understand and explain their technological delusions. Now that electricity has become the nervous fluid of the planet in the Information Age, it is harder to ascertain where anything resides.

Before explaining my reservations about the historical story the author presents, I want to note that the book is a remarkable assemblage of recorded cases of psychosis related to electronics. Sconce also treats each case in a respectful and balanced fashion. His comprehensive introduction of psychotic literature is matched by a broad base of topics. The book touches on everything from occult ideas to LSD and cybernetics. Drawing extensively on writings associated with structuralists, deconstructivists, and post-structuralists (e.g., Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, etc.), he presents a great deal of intriguing commentary about psychosis in relation to media as well as political and authority systems through tidbits like his discussion of the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which characterizes schizophrenia as a “spectrum” disorder rather than a pathology per se because of the lack of understanding of precisely what a psychosis is.

His illustrations are informative, and some of his critiques are most impressive, such as his overview of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The case of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber is one of many outstanding case studies. Schreber became one of the most analyzed psychotics of the twentieth century after Freud introduced the case into critical circulation due to similarities between Schreber’s delusional universe and his own theory of libido. Both invoked the telephone to explain their views, a wire for communication that might unwittingly lead to moments of telepathic transference. Victor Tausk, a student of Freud’s, is also well described. Tausk introduced what is characterized as a paranoid influencing machine. Whereas Schreber thought that God, through the help of nerves/wires/rays, was depriving him of his will and controlling his actions, in effect turning him into a kind of machine, Tausk described cases of schizophrenia in which patients thought machines were influencing them and transforming them into mechanical devices. Scone doesn’t mention this but the first of Tausk’s five characteristics for the “influencing machine” describes it in terms of the cinematograph: “It makes the patients see pictures. When this is the case, the machine is generally a magic lantern or cinematograph.” Another characteristic, one more in line with this book’s theme is that “[I]t produces, as well as removes, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain.” [1]

As noted, even recognizing how much effort was put into the book, I was disappointed with the historical foundation. Briefly, it is well-documented that humans were puzzled by behavior that deviated from norms in obvious ways even before modernity. Indeed, the Ancient Greek tragedians, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides all staged scenes of madness and delusion in their plays. One of the most memorable, Sophocles’ Ajax, includes the deluded title character who slaughters sheep and cattle believing them to be Greek generals who disgraced him. (After realizing this, he later commits suicide.) And, of course, Sophocles’ Oedipus myth was shot through with paranoia even before Freud mapped his own interpretations onto it.

Similarly, Sconce’s introduction of mind/electricity history in terms of Galen’s ideas about animal spirits is too far removed from electricity and applications (or technologies) to serve Sconce comprehensively. Galen’s medieval ideas about animal spirits did not pertain to electricity. Rather, Galen’s theory was related to the notion of the four humors (blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile). There is, however, documentation of a mind/electricity connection from that time and even earlier. The Ancient Greeks knew that the discharge in certain types of electric fish affected the mind. Indeed, Hippocratic medical texts refer to the flat torpedo-fish, narkē in Greek, noting that this fish produced numbness. (Its name is the root of the modern term narcotic, narcissism, and narcosis and it was used — it served as a technology — to reduce sensation in medical circumstances before anesthesia.) The torpedo’s mysterious ability to affect the mind, described somewhat similarly to delusions and occult explanations outlined by Sconce, was documented by Plato in Meno:

“Meno: O Socrates, I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits' end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have delivered an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and to many persons—and very good ones they were, as I thought—at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is. And I think that you are very wise in not voyaging and going away from home, for if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a sorcerer.” [2]

Although unmentioned by Sconce, the electric fish Socrates described was a factor in developing the early 19th century electronic inventions/applications trajectory the author correlates with psychosis. Sconce’s presentation makes it seem is as if electronic devices just somehow show up in society in the nineteenth century. In terms of Sconce’s marriage of electricity and delusions, his trajectory correctly connects Luigi Galvani’s (1737-1798) detection of electricity (when the muscles of dead frogs' legs twitched when struck by an electrical spark) with Galen’s animal spirits. So, while Sconce accurately speaks of how Galvani’s work facilitated in a definitional shift in nervous anatomy from circulation to circuitry, he does not couple this shift with the contemporaneous technological parallels that were based on the electric eel well known to the Ancient Greeks. In 1799, for example, the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta fashioned the voltaic pile, the world’s first synthetic battery based on the body of the electric eel Plato presents as a hypnotic device in the Meno, quoted above.

Perhaps the larger issue is that Sconce’s stress on modernity and his equations about technological and psychosis/delusion seemed predetermined. My sense is that he adopted the modernity/stress premise to guide his research and didn’t realize that the sources he chose to place the delusions historically in terms of mind/electricity were not looking at electricity robustly. One good example is his dismissal of delusions before modernity. His claim that early societies weren’t stressed enough or technologically advanced electronically to exhibit psychoses seems to lose sight of a point he makes repeatedly: we don’t even know how to define psychosis.

Similarly, I think the book would have benefitted from a broader spectrum of competing lines where pertinent. As I read, I kept thinking that it was unfortunate that Freud’s teacher, Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893), was excluded. While humanists seem to prefer Freud, Charcot would have offered some thought-provoking contrasts that moved some of the theoretical, anecdotal and abstract material into a more broadly-based societal framework. An early adopter of electricity in his laboratory, Charcot is best known today for his work on hypnosis and hysteria, topics Sconce explores. What makes Charcot’s controversial career particularly fascinating in terms of the broader spectrum is that his background in art and his theatrical way of doing things made him somewhat of a lightning rod in his time outside of the scientific community. This was captured in the German Expressionist movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which tells the story of an insane hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murders. The film’s obvious caricature of Charcot allows the narrative to raise a question Sconce discusses throughout his book: who and how do we identify who the insane are.

Finally, a key idea that deserves more discussion than I can offer in this review is the author’s framing of media as a prosthetic. Scone points out that McLuhan (in Understanding Media) formalized Freud’s earlier theories to explain that in earlier times turning off a device or smashing it was an option if one thought it was responsible for delusions. In our digital world this is no longer a viable strategy for avoiding electronic information because of the way data and information have entered into an amplified feedback loop. Sconce does point out that prosthetics are now commonplace and elaborates on a Prosthetic Godhead that may one day involve implanting knowledge chips, mechanized claws, and other affordances that will create an improved Human 2.0, perhaps with a new ad-blocking app to defeat the marketers. He also says that a Prosthetic Godhead is “the fairy-tale wish that technological extension endlessly promises and yet never seems to deliver” (p. 78).

In closing, The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity contains many fascinating elements and also suffers from limitations. One that stands out is Sconce’s concern about how media is making it difficult to know what reality is in a world where Trumpian disinformation and “Fake News” are a part of our daily media fare. Yet, at times, the author’s research reminded me that even academia builds echo chambers. Perhaps a humanities study can succeed despite of this because the desired result is critical analysis rather than a proof? In any case, Sconce tells us that it wasn’t his goal to provide a comprehensive history of madness, media, power, or psychiatry. Rather, he explains, he aimed to examine how technological delusions over the past two centuries have interrogated the historical relationship of electronics, power, and insanity. It is noteworthy that he more or less achieves this aim despite an inadequate historical framing. A second goal of the author was to demonstrate that this interrogation proceeds from a premise he claims was once insane but is now generally endorsed by all, that “no transmission is innocent” (p 19). I’m not sure how to evaluate this statement even having read the entire book, so I will leave that to the electronic spirit of Marshall McLuhan to resolve.

References

[1] Tausk Victor (1933) “On the origin of the influencing machine in schizophrenia.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 2, 519-556. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3330285/pdf/184.pdf.

[2] Plato. Meno, 80a. Trans. B. Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato Translated into English with Analysis and Introduction, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1643/1643-h/1643-h.htm. Also see Finger, Stanley, and Marco Piccolino. 2011. The Shocking History of Electric Fishes: From Ancient Epochs to the Birth of Modern Neurophysiology: Oxford University Press.