Ghostly Apparitions: German Idealism, the Gothic Novel, and Optical Media, by Stefan Andriopoulos

Zone Books, $28.95/£19.95 (hardcover)

By Brian Dillon

Consider this vague but excitable passage: ‘In phantasmagorical presentations it is night on all sides; here a bloody head surges forward, there another white form abruptly appears, before vanishing again. It is the night of the world that presents itself here.’

A study of spectral media and their place in post-Enlightenment thought

The lines don’t come, as may be expected, from the likes of Thomas De Quincey or Edgar Allan Poe, but from a lecture that G.W.F. Hegel delivered in 1805. It seems there were phantoms at the heart of his metaphysical apparatus – but exactly how surprising is that? In the introduction to his study of spectral media and their place in post-Enlightenment thought, Stefan Andriopoulos notes that his subject ‘may seem frivolous or crude to a specialist in German idealism’. Can it be true? Are there really still scholars of philosophy or the history of technology ill-disposed to the idea that modernity was haunted all along by atavist shades and superstition? It’s one of the frustrations of Andriopoulos’s flickeringly instructive book that his thesis seems so familiar, like a well-loved domestic spook caught rattling the cutlery again.

Perhaps that’s a little unfair, because there are reminders here of neglected writings – and overlooked passages in better-known ones – that complicate the portrait of a period (roughly 1750 to 1930) notionally in flight from tenacious beliefs and potent metaphors. Some of this material gets routinely overquoted: Marx’s ‘spectre haunting Europe’, or his comparing commodities with lively tables at a seance. But much of it is more obscure; as for instance Kant’s several writings on the supernatural. His Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766) is an ambiguous study of the phenomenon of ghostly clairvoyance – it’s unclear if the philosopher finally believed in memos from the departed – and like many sceptical texts it had the unintended effect of spreading the stories it was meant to dispute.

The real ghosts in the new media machine are the spectators themselves

Andriopoulos’s more substantial narrative, however, concerns the way philosophy, in describing the workings of consciousness, relied on metaphors drawn from the popular spectacle of the phantasmagoria, or from eerily chattering new contraptions. According to Schopenhauer, there was a kind of ‘presentation machine in the human brain box’, which in turn crackled with information just like the telegraph. Andriopoulos conveys all of this phantomic business competently enough, but he oddly fails to pursue the central metaphors to their obvious conclusions. Take for example the philosophers’ anxiety, shared by writers on the popularity of the gothic novel, regarding the unruly audiences for ghost stories and magic-lantern shows. The clear inference, which was made already in the eighteenth century by such writers as Joseph Addison, is that whatever revenants may stalk the page, screen or stage, the real ghosts in the new media machine are the spectators themselves. So intent is Andriopoulos on rehearsing well-established links between, say, gothic fiction and Robertson’s famous phantasmagoria in Paris – links most recently described, with more panache, by Marina Warner – that he fails to notice the zombie throng in the shadows and the cheap seats.

In part, the relative timidity of Ghostly Apparitions – a book that rather hubristically claims kinship with Jonathan Crary’s canonical Techniques of the Observer (1992), and is fleetingly dismissive of Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994) – is a result of its episodic structure. Chapters on German philosophy, fiction from Radcliffe to Poe, mesmerism and early experiments in television manifest themselves in unrelated succession – this despite Andriopoulos’s tendency to bring previously quoted passages back to life in other contexts. There was a real opportunity here, especially in light of the intriguing final chapter on the invention of television and its roots in spiritualist seeing-at-a-distance, to trace an arc from Hegel’s horror-show metaphor to contemporary distraction and the cinematic imaginary of undead masses. But Ghostly Apparitions closes its eyes and hopes it’ll go away.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue