Uri Geller and the Enchantment of Technology.
In the early 1970’s television audiences marvelled at the antics of Uri Geller. He could apparently re-activate broken watches; he could reproduce telepathically a drawing that had been made secretly by an entire stranger, and – above all, he could bend spoons, supposedly without physical intervention, for Geller’s major power was said to be Psychokinesis, the ability to transmit ‘thought energy’ through materials and space.
At the time, the major reaction to the Geller phenomenon centred on the legitimacy of his powers (Wilson 1976). Was he channelling some previously unrecognised human capability, like synaesthesia, or was he just a charismatic showman, an expert in distracting ‘banter’ and sleight of hand?
Today, the truth or otherwise of Geller’s act seems rather less remarkable, than the seriousness with which his powers were investigated. In the 1970’s Geller was the subject of numerous scientific experiments and one suspects that if he had been practising a decade or so earlier, he might have been recruited as a secret weapon of the CIA. This is a reference to one of the more bizarre chapters in the history of the Cold War, Project MKUltra, “the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.” (Wikipedia).
We are told that this aspect of the CIA’s work came to an end around 1973- when the records were destroyed-, and like the Geller phenomenon it can appear to belong to a different age. The big hair, the flowery shirts and the photographs taken with the aristocracy of Pop (John Lennon, Elton John, Omar Sharif… Jimmy Young) can seem like the sexing up of a tired and faintly ridiculous craft. Older readers of this article, who grew up in the UK, will surely recall that just as Uri Geller was making spoon bending trendy, the comic magician Tommy Cooper was making conventional conjuring look ridiculous.
With the benefit of hindsight Geller’s performance was closely adapted to the conventions of contemporary TV. In November 1973, when Geller made his first UK appearance, a live transmission was still an exciting event, and the highlights of the performance- a breaking fork, a reactivated watch, a drawing nervously taken from an envelope in apparent proof of Geller’s telepathic powers-were eminently suited to the faltering close-up shot. Moreover as the performance unfolded in real time, there was always the chance that nothing would happen, or that Geller’s power would run out of control, as when a number of viewers reportedly phoned in to say that the telepathic messages had somehow become entwined with the TV signal and their watches had stopped.
But this makes Geller’s performance seem comical. In fact, it was surprisingly sober, prosaic even, given the fact that he was supposed to be moving objects around, just by thinking about them. Under other circumstances the sight of keys bending, or broken watches coming back to life might have suggested a horror film.
But there was nothing uncanny about Geller. Rather, his performance was couched in terms of a psychological experiment. On the occasion of the first UK broadcast, the physicist and mathematician Professor John Taylor from the University of London brought a certain amount of gravitas to the proceedings. On the other side of the studio, the case for a more relativist, New Age understanding of the world, was represented by Dr. Lyall Watson, the author of the recent best-seller Supernature. A natural history of the supernatural (1973).
In the event Geller was too self-effacing to provoke much controversy, though the explanations that did come to light, tell us much, I would suggest, about the co-existence of reason and superstition in the popular understanding of science. On the one hand there was the recognition that real physical laws should be measured and verified under controlled conditions. Geller made much of how he had been prodded and probed by the scientists at Stamford University. On the other, there was a ready tendency to cite supernatural explanations-in Geller’s case the idea of an alien intelligence-, plus a resort to analogies with established commonsense physical principles.
Thus Geller’s account and Professor Taylor’s ad hoc hypothesis, came together around the image of a kinetic energy being transmitted along the length of a metal object, agitating its molecular structure, then fracturing the spoon, key, or fork at its narrowest point. In effect Geller’s powers were being compared to magnetism or lightning, with his finger tips acting as a conducting rod. In the course of the broadcast Geller guided the audience towards this interpretation, only to confound their expectations by demonstrating, with the assistance of a flabbergasted Professor Taylor, how the metal had fractured, without becoming hot.
Fred Nadis, a writer on American Studies has called this kind of spectacle- the ‘wonder show’, ‘a vision of the world that fuses the marvels of modern science with ancient invisible forces’ (Nadis 2005:9). In effect he argues how an experience more typical of the 16th and 17th century cabinet of curiosities, ‘outlived’ the Enlightenment, as it were, in the context of fairgrounds, magic performances, fantasy fiction, 3D cinema, new age cults, and even something as mainstream as advertising. For at the heart of his argument is the idea that irrespective of scientific reason, modern man remains a naked ape, a creature who instinctively understands the world in terms of simple analogies, common narratives, and everyday sensory experience.
We can find evidence for this viewpoint in several quarters (Vyse 1997). In relation to public health for example, we might consider the efficacy of the placebo effect. How many patients are made better, simply by the sight of a white coat? In situations that involve a high degree of risk or uncertainty, like travel, sport, or gambling, how many of us resort to superstitious rituals, or the power of prayer? Then there are our emotional relationships with technology. We might think of a spectrum running from HAL, the sinister artificial intelligence that achieves self-awareness and answers back in the movie 2001. A space odyssey (Kubrik 1968), to Herbie, The Love Bug (Stevenson 1968), the cute looking car that illustrates our tendency to regard personal devices as pets.
We could multiply these instances of the ‘ghost in the machine’, or the neediness of man, the naked ape, but would they add up to anything more than the sum of their parts? Fred Nadis’ big idea is that there is something peculiarly American about the wonder show. We might think of P.J. Barnum (1810-1891), the father of the modern publicity stunt in late 19th century, or the present day TV evangelists. A similar viewpoint characterises David Nye’s book American Technological Sublime. His title is a reference to what might be seen as the man made equivalents of the Grand Canyon and the giant redwoods; for instance the Hoover dam, the Empire State building, and the Apollo space rocket. These express an overwhelming sense of power combined with feelings of national prowess. As Nye explains: ‘since the early nineteenth century the technological sublime has been one of America’s central ideas about itself- a defining ideal, helping to bind together a multicultural society’ (Nye 1994:xiv).
One is reminded of the importance of quantity and scale in the ‘American Way of Life’: The big refrigerators, the big cars and the supermarkets of the 1950’s that somehow proved this was the most democratic and affluent nation on earth.
A rather different view is taken in the Marxist reading of man and his irrational relationship with technology. HAL, the Love Bug and all those gadgets and images that tell us how to be modern are agents of a false consciousness, a commodity fetishism that threatens to ‘Coca-colonise’ the world. One of the better-known texts in this tradition comes from the anthropologist Roland Barthes. Civilised man may think he has out-grown superstition, but thanks to capitalism he is embroiled in a network of commercial mythologies: the objects, spaces and behaviours that reproduce and glamorise the bourgeois way of life (Barthes 1957, 1973). Hence the debut of a state of the art motorcar like the Citroen DS in the 1950’s, is likened to a cross between the legend of the Golden Calf and a cargo cult. For as Barthes explains this wondrous-looking vehicle scarcely resembled any existing car, being closer to a space ship, a bug-eyed monster, or a magic carpet. It looked as if it had descended from outer space. The realities of production- the metal bashing, the assembly lines, the labour relations- were entirely obscured beneath a mirror-like surface. Hence the DS, which, as Barthes reminds us is pronounced ‘goddess’ in French, becomes the consummate consumer object, a fetish to be worshipped, and a reflection of a fantasy self.
The censoriousness of the Marxist theory of commodity fetishism finds a surprising echo in the late 19th and early 20th century conception of the ‘primitive’ mind. According to the French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) the worldview of the ‘native’, like that of the child, or the uneducated Westerner, was pre-logical and governed by the ‘law of participation’ (Lévy-Bruhl 1910, 1992). This meant that the primitive saw the world as an extension of his or her consciousness, and believed that he or she could intervene in nature, or shape future events via the power of ritual or concentrated thought. What is remarkable, of course is how this ‘law of participation’, perfectly describes many of our current interactions with technology and objects; and not least Uri Geller’s special relationship with watches and cutlery. So to paraphrase Bruno Latour, a contemporary sociologist intrigued by the anomalies of progress, ‘we have never been (wholly) modern’ (Latour 1993).
One of the most refreshing aspects of Latour’s work is his reluctance to generalise. He pieces together an impression of our interactions with technology in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle. He presents a case study of a hubristic rail project (Aramis, or the love of technology, 1993), an everyday encounter with an automatic door closure that is worthy of Jacques Tati (Latour 1992), and the equally surreal prospect of a double-headed key, especially designed for use in the concierge-free flats of old Berlin (ibid). (A more familiar example might be one of those hotel keys with a giant fob, especially designed to be ‘disobedient’, by refusing to fit in one’s pocket). To repeat, Latour is interesting because he resists the temptation to aggregate these everyday experiences into one vast, Matrix-style, conspiracy theory.
This is important because it explains how, in the ‘byways’ of the modern world, a character like Uri Geller might practice a craft that resembles alchemy or Voodoo. The prosaic explanation of course is that Geller was, and remains an illusionist, a magician who embellished a time-honoured craft with the glamour of celebrity and the paraphernalia of a fashionable science- psychology. Indeed this was the argument of his chief detractor, the Amazing Randi, a magician who follows in a tradition that involves the revelation of- some -of the illusionist’s secrets, as part of the act. From this perspective, Geller’s insistence on a supernatural agency amounted to an insult to the profession.