When the Medium Was the Mission
The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture
North American Religions
Published by: NYU Press
320 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm, 14 b/w illustrations
- ISBN: 9781479801497
- Published: February 2021
**FINALIST, 2022 PROSE Award in Theology & Religious Studies**
An innovative exploration of religion's influence on communication networks
When Samuel Morse sent the words “what hath God wrought” from the US Supreme Court to Baltimore in mere minutes, it was the first public demonstration of words travelling faster than human beings and farther than a line of sight in the US. This strange confluence of media, religion, technology, and US nationhood lies at the foundation of global networks.
The advent of a telegraph cable crossing the Atlantic Ocean was viewed much the way the internet is today, to herald a coming world-wide unification. President Buchanan declared that the Atlantic Telegraph would be “an instrument destined by divine providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world” through which “the nations of Christendom [would] spontaneously unite.” Evangelical Protestantism embraced the new technology as indicating God’s support for their work to Christianize the globe. Public figures in the US imagined this new communication technology in primarily religious terms as offering the means to unite the world and inspire peaceful relations among nations. Religious utopianists saw the telegraph as the dawn of a perfect future.
Religious framing thus dominated the interpretation of the technology’s possibilities, forging an imaginary of networks as connective, so much so that connection is now fundamental to the idea of networks. In reality, however, networks are marked, at core, by disconnection. With lively historical sources and an accessible engagement with critical theory, When the Medium was the Mission tells the story of how connection was made into the fundamental promise of networks, illuminating the power of public Protestantism in the first network imaginaries, which continue to resonate today in false expectations of connection.
When the Medium Was the Mission excavates the entire assemblage surrounding the first transatlantic undersea cable, typically thought of as marking the birth of network culture in 1858. Rather than build on the conventional definition of a network — which favors the technological structure connecting nodes — Supp-Montgomerie begins with the premise that networks have always been 'first and foremost imaginaries' or enactments of 'particular forms of social and material life.' This framing makes clear that whatever we currently believe about the inherent affordances of networks is in fact what our network environment allows us to believe. ~LA Review of Books
As refreshingly original as it is persuasive, Supp-Montgomerie’s media history traces the entwined trajectories of religious affect and network-oriented thinking as they emerged in reference to American telegraphy. Her stories of fervid missionaries, Bible communists, and Protestant utopians—as of failed connections and togetherness defeated—should resonate for readers today who are steeped in Silicon Valley evangelism. ~Lisa Gitelman, author of Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents
Supp-Montgomerie models how to integrate the study of human and non-human actors in American religious history, offering us a fascinating account of infrastructure’s work to animate religious life and of the politics such religious infrastructure enabled. ~Judith Weisenfeld, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion, Princeton University
Nets consist mostly of holes: that’s what makes them nets. This insight drives Jenna Supp-Montgomerie’s revisionist genealogy of our network-intoxicated present. With a rich social-theoretical imagination and generous interpretive brush, she shows how technological dreamers conjure tales of rapture and sizzle from facts of rupture and fizzle. Networks, like Penelope’s loom, unravel as they ravel. This insight is both foundational for media history and a moral truth of the first order. ~John Durham Peters, Yale University
Theoretically sophisticated and written in an engaging style,When the Medium Was the Mission describes a heady world of invisible affects, circulating discourses, and utopian fantasies, quickened by (though not quite reliant on) the cables corroding at the bottom of an ocean. ~American Religion