Warner, Marina. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century.
What is the soul? What is the psyche? These two questions are ones that most scholars would shy away from in the twenty-first century. Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria, however, is an ambitious study that begins with these questions that continue to haunt people in the modern era of secularism and rationality. Warner's book stems from the paradox that "modernity did not by any means put an end to the quest for spirit and the desire to explain its mystery" (10). Indeed, the reality is quite the opposite, as Phantasmagoria demonstrates. People are still interested in the life-giving principle--spirit, soul, psyche, or "an animus or anima imagined to lurk within embodied personality" (9)--that differentiates life from death, and self from other. Warner's thesis is that scientific and technological developments of modernity have not abolished the mystery of the soul; instead, new technologies and media have offered new ways to conceptualize and represent spirits and imaginary visions. Warner's concerns are not theological but related to imagination and representation; she is interested in "how the imagination has summoned up spirits" (62). Thus, Phantasmagoria is "an archaeology of spirits" (13), an exploration of metaphorical and visual conceptualizations and representations of soul and spirit forms in modern Western thought, art, and entertainment, from philosophical imaginings and fantastic visualizations to (pseudo-) scientific quests for spirits.
Readers who are familiar with Warner's earlier works, such as From the Beast to the Blonde (1994) and Fantastic Metamorphoses (2002), will know what to expect--extensive research and sophisticated argumentation. Yet Phantasmagoria goes beyond Warner's earlier works in extensiveness. At first the book seems almost encyclopedic: apart from the introduction and the conclusion, it consists of 27 chapters divided into ten parts. An impressive list of illustrations and a substantial bibliography add to the effect. Phantasmagoria is not, however, encyclopedic in nature, because Warner's main theses run neatly throughout the study. Each part explores a different "vehicle," a medium or a metaphor for spirit representations: wax, air, clouds, light, shadow, mirror, ghost, ether, ectoplasm, and film. Warner discusses how different media strongly rely on representational conventions governing portrayals of invisible phenomena, "the logic of the imaginary" (13), while simultaneously transforming those conventions.
Warner investigates two main types of representations. The first type consists of representations that visualize invisible and impalpable spirit forms through reliance on conventions such as whiteness, ethereality, and translucency to represent the immateriality of spirits and souls. The second type of representation is based on the belief that the soul or individual uniqueness can be detected in a person's external form leading to attempts to achieve verisimilitude in portraits, waxworks, photography, and film. Although the focus is on visual arts including waxworks, painting, magic lantern shows, seances, photography, and film, Warner also considers verbal metaphors for spirits and souls, and she refers to several representatives of the literary fantastic and philosophical and psychological theories of souls and psyches.
While it is impossible to provide a detailed description of the contents, some comments on the main threads of discussion can be offered. These concern the question of why Warner should pursue this kind of task in the first place. She notes that "the spectres who haunt someone or some time or some place tell us about what mattered then, to them, there" (246), but there are even more significant reasons to study representations of spirits. Warner addresses three main issues in relation to the representations of spirit forms: the technologies that make the representations possible, the status of the representations and spirit metaphors in connection to human vision, and the ways in which changing conceptions of selfhood have affected these representations.
In relation to the technologies of representation, Warner considers the desire to utilize science and technology to discover, represent, or create souls and spirits. She argues that although technical instruments expand human empirical understanding, throughout the "haunted modernity [...] made by optics" (152) the desire has never been to use new technologies merely to document the world but also to represent the invisible and fantastic. Warner's discussion of the changing conceptions of human vision, cognition, and imagination is also convincing. She explores discourses that have regulated the boundaries between reality and fantasy, visions and illusions, from "politics of superstition" (99) to early psychological theories about cognition, noting that "from the inward turn of the uncanny at the end of the eighteenth century, the challenge no longer consists in distinguishing devil from divinity, but madness from sanity" (312-13). Warner leads this discursive thread into the contemporary world where vision is again questioned in relation to the boundaries of reality. She argues that in contemporary culture, "the boundary between the real and the imagined has [...] weakened" (378), both because of scientific theories that "have redrafted the nature of matter in such subtle and complex ways that the distinction between materiality and immateriality is dissolving" (297) and because contemporary narrative techniques "have increased the ever more popular skewing of the real and the Active, the warping of imaginary into actual" (325). While this is a rather generalizing argument, Warner's claim that the anxiety linked to the limits and possibilities of human vision exists today as strongly as it ever did is convincing.
Warner's pursuit of representations of souls is connected to questions of selfhood and subjectivity. She describes the shift from the Cartesian belief in a unique inner core to more problematic conceptualizations of selfhood and psyche, and she demonstrates how these changing conceptualizations have been reflected in visual and fictional representations. Again, Warner finishes with contemporary experiences of selfhood that are fundamentally shaped by the new technologies that can move an individual swiftly through time and space. As a result, Warner argues, "we now inhabit forms of disembodiment all the time, from the family album to the CCTV monitor" (336). The search for spirits and souls has certainly changed its nature in the contemporary world, where people are surrounded by their own and other people's spectral images on film and in cyberspace. By addressing the connections between these issues and the representations of souls and spirits in the past and the present, Warner considers not only what mattered in the past but what matters now, to us, here in the present.
Phantasmagoria is a well-argued, inspiring study; however, there are a few problematic issues. The book's structure at times requires some effort from the reader as direct connections between anecdotal incidents, specific artworks, and major themes can be difficult to discern. Warner's knowledge of cultural history is wide-ranging, and her eclectic explorations move comfortably between different eras, incidents, theories, and stories; at points, however, the reader could be guided further by a few more hints as to where the arguments are leading. For example, the chapters on wax in part 1 seem a somewhat strange place to start and make more sense only after one is further into the book. In chapter 26, the lengthy discussion of apocalypse seems a bit beside the point, despite Warner's claim that "the spectral self of contemporary mass media belongs in the same current as the popular rise of apocalypse, through uses of imagery that evoke both" (337). In addition, the discussion of zombies and selfhood in chapter 27 is more convincing if the reader is familiar with the arguments introduced in Fantastic Metamorphoses--Warner does not repeat her former theses here.
The most valuable thing in Phantasmagoria is the imaginative way in which Warner draws connections between different ideas, texts, disciplines, and periods. For scholars interested in the fantastic in the arts, Phantasmagoria should be thought-provoking reading because it deals in an original way with questions of how to represent the unseen, imagined, and visionary.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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