James Mussell (University of Leeds)
Print Presence in the Electrical Age: Oliver Lodge, Media, and Materiality
Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) was a pioneer of the electrical age. A champion of Hertz, Lodge demonstrated how electromagnetic waves might be used to signal through space in 1894, three years before Marconi’s famous patent of 1897. Electromagnetic waves interested Lodge for what they revealed about the ether: the intangible medium that pervaded all space and was held to be accountable for a range of phenomena from light to electricity. For spiritualists like Lodge, wireless telegraphy was another way to make the ether tangible and so to study the links between body and soul, the living and the dead. In 1915, during the first world war, Lodge lost his youngest son, Raymond, in action at Ypres. A few weeks after his death, Lodge began to make contact with Raymond in séances with spirit mediums. In 1916 he published the details of these encounters in a memoir, Raymond; Or Life and Death. An unlikely bestseller, the book made the case for Raymond’s continuing life on the spiritual plane. By sublimating the affectual bonds between father and son, Lodge took an editorial role that allowed Raymond to emerge in print.
Looking again at Lodge can help us understand the medial ideology of the digital age. The rhetoric of digital media is one of dematerialization, where information is understood as prior to the media technologies through which it flows. However, just as Lodge’s attempts to realize the ether could only push it away, so informational flows remain rooted in the embodied media that lend them presence. Lodge’s thermodynamic spiritualism, I argue, reminds us that it is by doing things with embodied forms that we transcend them.