Please welcome guest contributor Janaka Stucky to Haute Macabre
Peter Bebergal is the author of Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural, which hits the stores October 18th. His previous book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, was a fascinating study of the intersection between occulture and pop culture so I couldn’t wait to make my way through Strange Frequencies as soon as review copies became available. After finishing it, I was eager to talk with Peter near his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the book.
Janaka Stucky: One of the central ideas of your book is the ways in which we use technology to complement—or in some cases awaken—our supernatural imagination. I loved this kind of sequel to your exploration of the “occult imagination” in your previous book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll. How would you summarize the supernatural imagination and its functions in society?
Peter Bebergal: It might be better in some ways to simply talk about the religious or spiritual imagination writ large since both the occult and the supernatural are intimately tied to our sense of self in relation to the divine, or even the lack thereof if one is more atheistic. But the supernatural specifically relates to the ways in which we imagine the kind of interactions with the divine that is usually understood as unorthodox, sometimes even dangerous. Divination, for example, is usually understood as using some form of object or device (seeing-stone, tea leaves, bones) as a way for the spirit world to interact with us materially. Moreover, the supernatural imagination tends to ask questions that most religious communities leave open ended. It might be true for many Christians that when we die are souls go to Heaven, or Purgatory, or even Hell, but the supernatural imagination asks, “But can we communicate with those souls? Does the soul have a kind of consciousness?” On the other end of the spectrum, the supernatural imagination allows us to interact with art, music, and performance in unique ways, pushing us to conceptualize realities beyond the phenomenal. Would a film like Poltergeist be at all interesting if not for that part of us that can believe, or even imagine what it might be like to believe, that ghosts exists and can enter our homes through the television set?
JS: I’m glad you brought up divination because that relates to something else that was revelatory to me throughout the book, namely: that the ‘technology’ in the “technological quest for the supernatural” of the title isn’t just cameras, or televisions, or other mechanical devices, but also that crystals or sigils and other more fundamental tools external to our bodies are a kind of technology we use. Can you talk about that role of technology in relation to the spiritual imagination?
PB: Magic and technology are both methods of using tools to manipulate or get some modicum of control over our experience in the world. The magician or medium and the inventor are intimately related, because they are all attempting to break open conventional ways of working with the forces that shape our lives. Magic is, indeed, a kind of spiritual hacking. When the medium is using a seeing-stone to try to speak with angelic beings, they are cracking open the machine of the universe and repurposing it. Think of a table of occult correspondences as a schematic or vice versa, and your imagination is enchanted in an entirely new way.
JS: Yes, that reminds me of one of my favorite lines from your book: “…technology is not merely an external experience, but an inner process of making that moves through all things.” That idea of ‘inner making’ recontextualizes the “craft” in “witchcraft” in really interesting and exciting ways—and also the “stagecraft” of magicians. The magic is in the making and in the performing as much as—or more than—in the materials themselves. What was the most magical experience of making you had while researching this book?
PB: There were many moments of amazement; spending time with the photographer Shannon Taggart and her photographs of mediums, staring into filmmaker Ronni Thomas’ dreamachine, and speaking by Skype to the actor/magician Nate Dendy when suddenly an entire deck of cards fell out his mouth, to name a few. But there was a moment when I was in the studio of the horologist Nico Cox. She was showing me a clockwork mechanism called a bird box. She wound the device, and after a deeply pregnant pause, a tiny feathered bird popped and began to sing, moving back and forth, its small beak opening and closing. Rationally I knew that it was a mechanical object, but I felt myself fall into that uncanny valley where my imagination was entranced. What was real and not real, life and not life, became irrelevant in the face of this marvelous object. This, I realized, is what magic truly is. Someone created this device, according to their will, and caused change to occur in both the world and in the consciousness of the observer. It was no wonder that one time people thought an automaton like this was powered by infernal forces. Even knowing it was all a matter of gears and bellows, I still could not understand how such a thing could exist.
JS: A moment where there was no need to suspend your disbelief because it was suspended for you—you were enchanted.
PB: Indeed. So this is an essential element that technology can provide when used towards these occult purposes; re-enchanting the world.
JS: And what about any paranormal experiences? Did you have any moments where, despite whatever beliefs or disbeliefs you might hold, you couldn’t help but wonder at the presence of something from “beyond?”
PB: So this is where things get tricky. First let me say that I have had my own experiences apart from the research I did with this book, but in relation to working with technology let me say that I really opened myself up to whatever experiences might present themselves. I am what you would call a believing skeptic. I believe in a divine reality, hold fast to the idea that—under the right conditions—our consciousness can expand beyond the phenomenal and access the numinous. But I think for the most part the physical universe is pretty stable. While magic and other esoteric practices can alter our consciousness to access a symbolic representation of the divine, I am skeptical that the otherworldly can or would even choose to interact directly with this material word. Nevertheless, I wanted to embed myself in these ideas. I went to seances, built ghost boxes (hacked radios meant to listen to spirits) and used technology in other magical ways. There were certainly a few moments of what I could call glitches, but otherwise there wasn’t really anything I would call paranormal. But, and this is a big “but,” there were times when I wasn’t always certain what I was seeing or hearing. This was particularly true with Shannon Taggart’s photographs, some of which eerily correspond to what the medium had said was taking place during the seance but which could not be seen until looking at Shannon’s image afterwards. In this way, it was the technology that allowed that ambiguity to take shape.
JS: Similar to the use of stones by seminal 16th century occultist, John Dee, who claimed they helped him hear what his ears alone could not?
PB: Exactly. In fact the use of cameras and radios are simply extensions of divinatory practice that has been going on for centuries and further back still. Most forms of divination require some material component, a medium as it were, to facilitate the spirit being able to interact with the material world.
JS: Perhaps what I loved most about this book, which is something that your particular viewpoint brings to it, is the parallels it draws between ‘the magician and the hacker’—which, by the way, you should use as a title for your next book … This idea that occulture, despite its systems and rituals, is very much a DIY culture—and that ghost hunters, magicians, witches, or other practitioners are essentially using their respective technologies to hack a system of consciousness. This feels especially poignant in today’s socio-political climate, where so many people feel oppressed and depressed by the established order, and meanwhile we are seeing a zeitgeist of ‘mainstream occulture’ as—perhaps—we seek to restore a sense of personal agency.
PB: This is exactly what the main theme of the book is. Magic is a kind of spiritual hacking, particularly within the context of mainstream and traditional religious practices. Occult practices, at their core, are about individual spiritual agency, experimentation and synthesis. And this desire to restore a sense of personal agency is also apparent in the rise of DIY and maker culture. It also has to do with how the hacker and the magician are both often rebellious spirits, acting as heterodox agents of change. The danger of course, is when the hacker becomes the CEO and closes the system he or she created. Technology, when used toward these occult purposes, requires constant reimagining of what is possible. Whether or not you believe that magic is real, we can benefit from the kind of radical experimentation that gives us glimpses of an enchanted world.
photo credits :
1 Haute Macabre 2 Adrianne Mathiowetz 3/4 Shannon Taggart 5 Adrianne Mathiowetz
Find Peter Bebergal’s books on Amazon or at your local independent bookseller