Graduate Salon: Grant Wythoff and George Laufenberg

Fri, Mar 15, 2013, 12:00 pm

Grant Wythoff

The canonical story about Hugo Gernsback is that he launched the genre of science fiction as the founding editor of Amazing Stories in April of 1926. Gernsback treated the magazine as merely a commercial venture, wrote in a “crude and heavy-handed” style, and now usually receives little more than a cursory, one-sentence nod in critical works on the genre. Focusing only on the period from Amazing and after, this inherited version overlooks the wider context of the genre's birth in Gernsback's fleet of electrical experimenter magazines as well as his work as a pioneer in wireless technologies and amateur broadcast activist. “The Perversity of Things,” named after a Gernsback essay on the influence that objects exert on thought, will be a critical edition of these writings. Through extensive archival research, I provide a new picture of modern science fiction as a literary genre that emerged out of an electrical supply catalogue. In the 1910s and ’20s, one could find in the pages of these publications a literary treatise on what the genre of “scientifiction” should look like alongside a blueprint for a homebrewed Nipkow disk television set or a pocket wireless receiver. Long before Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, writers used speculative fiction to find a language for emerging media such as radio, television, or the more exotic osophon and telegraphone. This collection occasions a reappraisal of both the “hard” technical roots of American science fiction and the highly speculative orientation toward media technologies in the period.

George Laufenberg

While the religious origins of the encounter between psychotherapist and patient are well-documented — practitioners of “the talking cure” have been compared to priests and shamans since Freud conjured the discipline — recent scholarship suggests that the relationship between “therapy” and “religion” appears to work both ways in the U.S: anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann's decade of work with Evangelical Christians, for instance, foregrounds the decline of the fire-and-brimstone God of the old testament and the rise of an unconditionally loving, and profoundly intimate, friend and confidant. What has been described as “the problem of presence” — accounting, that is, for the ways in which the divine becomes real for people — is not confined to evangelicals, however: somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Americans currently identify as “spiritual but not religious” (or “SBNR”). My research took place at the conjuncture of these categories: I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with a community of SBNR Americans — most of whom are licensed mental health professionals — who practice metaphysical healing techniques in spiritual ceremonies. My dissertation explores the milieux in which these healing practices are taught and learned, seeking to understand them as responses to what people experience as profound crises of presence — of the divine and the social — as well as opportunities to ask some questions about the place of the sacred in contemporary American social life.