The Soul in the Machine: On Peter Bebergal’s “Strange Frequencies”

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE announced the “death of God” and thereby entrenched the end of belief in the supernatural in our science-centered modernity. Yet he ironically described the ancestry and lineage of scientists as distinctly occult and supernatural. “Do you believe,” he asks in The Gay Science, “that the sciences would have arisen and grown up if the sorcerers, alchemists, astrologers and witches had not been their forerunners?” Peter Bebergal’s Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural continues Nietzsche’s philosophical questioning. He provides a series of vignettes featuring contemporary technologists of various disciplines whose motivations, subjects, and data derive from anomalous phenomena. Bebergal paints a marvelous portrait of the links between what the Enlightenment mentality framed as two very incompatible epistemologies: technology and the supernatural. As he argues, the pursuit of the supernatural appears to be inextricably linked to innovative and extraordinary technologies, and the question that motivates his research is: “Why has technology not pulled us completely away from the magical?” His answers drive this enchanting and provocative book.
Each chapter focuses on one specific type of technology and the people responsible for its creation. The first chapter delves into Bebergal’s own fascination with the “golem,” which, in the Jewish culture, is an anthropomorphic creation, usually made from mud, and given life through specific magical words. The author identifies the original golem as Adam, created by God, and interviews people who are rumored to be able to create golems, or at least know about them historically. Bebergal admits that he has sought to create a golem himself, but ultimately learns that there is a severance, within the Jewish tradition, between the sacred creation of life, as depicted in Genesis, and the perhaps not-so-sacred creation of the golem by humans. As he notes, the “golem lives as a metaphor for technology, particularly artificial intelligence, not only as a direct comparison regarding the creation of artificial life, but the danger that can come if we lose control of that creation.” The motif of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, referenced here, haunts Bebergal’s book.
This danger — that of the creation run amok — is explored in the second chapter, as Bebergal spends time with Nico, an horologist — which, we learn, is a person who repairs and restores dolls and automata. Spending time with Nico in her workshop is uncanny and fascinating. Bebergal explores the strange fascination that people have with dolls, especially those that are animated. The theme established in chapter one, which ends with a reference to Shelley, is elaborated here as Bebergal explores the strange worlds of automata and the human fascination with animating human facsimiles. Unlike the golem, which retains nonhuman characteristics, animated dolls frighten and simultaneously captivate. Lifelike, animated dolls invoke the specter of artificial intelligence and fears that human creations may eventually erase the distinction between what is created apparently ex nihilo, or by divine means, and what is created by humankind.
In the third chapter, a new idea unfolds that does not sever the supernatural from the technological, or at least doesn’t appear to. Bebergal explores the world of Ferdinando Buscema, who happens to be both a mechanical engineer and a magician — a technologist and an occultist, the perfect combination to unveil Bebergal’s enigma of divergent worldviews and how they interact. He writes, for example: “My exploration would next take me to when magic and technology were indistinct from each other, and where performance, technology, and illusion can become so indistinguishable from the supernatural reality they seek to disclose.” Buscema explains that his audiences come to his performances with “full intelligence,” and yet are amazed by displays of the apparently impossible. Bebergal notes that this aspect of technology allows the audience to view it as simultaneously rational and supernatural, as they are aware of the mechanical aspects of the magician’s tricks, but no less enthralled by them.
The fourth chapter explores the work of Shannon Taggart, an acclaimed photographer whose work depicting communities of spiritualists has received much positive attention from media and scholarly communities. Her work convinces Bebergal that there is something magical that can occur amid some technological events. “Spiritualism,” he writes, “accepts the reality of spirits interacting with the living as commonplace.”
Up to this point in the book, Bebergal remains fairly agnostic with respect to actual supernatural experiences. Yet it is through an engagement with Taggart’s work that he experiences a “sense of enchantment, of having been in the presence of a rift in the space where spirits and mortals can interact, [which] wouldn’t come for me until the experience was filtered through technology, in this case digital SLR [Single-Lens Reflex].” It is not that Bebergal is convinced that the photographs capture actual, objective spirits, but that through watching Taggart’s photographic exhibit, there “opened the possibility that indeed an unveiling between worlds had occurred.”
Yet this opening is not what is usually assumed. Bebergal reveals that Taggart has caught a series of meaningful, even remarkable coincidences, or what Carl Jung called “synchronicities”; they move the viewer with their poignancy. Taggart, too, is shocked by these coincidences. An interesting passage relates how Taggart does everything she can to rule out strange “captures” on her photos, yet they show her subjects changed in visceral ways, something which she cannot deny.
From here the book takes on a seminal figure of the technological supernatural, Nikola Tesla. Tesla is a major cult figure within the occult discourse and has even crossed over into the mainstream, thanks in part to Elon Musk. Tesla believed that he could connect with the supernatural — or supernatural entities — via frequencies and radio waves. Bebergal attempts to decipher the man Tesla from the myth.
Ending the book with a real-world version of a wizard, Tesla, is especially significant as Bebergal has kept these worlds separated much throughout the book. Yet, toward the end of it, by exploring these kinds of modern-day magicians, he comes to observe that computer coders are perhaps the new wizards. Technology and its advocates may have once tried to disenchant the world, yet in the end it is technology that re-enchants it. For all those who have ever considered the tension between science and religion, or technology and supernatural, Strange Frequencies will certainly enchant, entertain, and instruct.
Diana Walsh Pasulka is a professor and chair of the department of philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina.
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