Media in Action: From Exorcism to Mesmerism

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


In the Bavaria of 1775, the popular exorcist practices performed by the catholic priest Johann Joseph Gassner were discredited and superseded by the enlightened, scientific’ system of Franz Anton Mesmer's “Animal Magnetism”. As the article argues, this replacement could happen so easily because–below the apparent ideological differences–both procedures were based on the same idea of technical functioning, they relied on the same principle of operation. Gassnerism as well as Mesmerism revolved around the idea of communication, and in both cases this communication’ was not about conveying a message, a meaning, it was a about mediating between two corporeal states which were marked by an imbalance of energy. In the frame of this common operating system, the message was nothing, transmission everything; and so both Gassner’s and Mesmer’s deliberations concentrated on the technical means and media which could allow for such a transport of forces.

A hypothesis drawn from this episode is that throughout the early modern period there can be found basically two ways of understanding supernatural communication (and, maybe, communication tout court): One might be called contact paradigm’ and would among others include the practices of Gassner and Mesmer, the second one could be named ‘code paradigm’ and would unite all magical practices primarily based on the interpretation of signs. Perhaps one can find here an origin of the theoretical bifurcations that still govern today's media and communication studies: medium vs. message, channel vs. content, hardware vs. software, presence culture vs. meaning culture.