Mormonism and Media Studies, at least from a historical perspective, has been a relatively neglected topic. Recently, however, two major academic journals have published articles that engage Mormon history from the perspective of German media theorist Friedrich A. Kittler. The first article is by John Durham Peters, the A. Craig Baird Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. It is entitled “Recording beyond the Grave: Joseph Smith’s Celestial Bookkeeping” and it appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Critical Inquiry. The article is unfortunately only available to subscribers, but here is an excerpt:
The [Mormon] tradition is obsessed with records and documentation, from its founding text, The Book of Mormon (1830)—an elaborate scriptural history that is scrupulously self-referential about its own status as a record—to the church’s ongoing colossal project of compiling a genealogical database that would include every human being who ever lived on earth.5 Smith envisioned recording practices that could bind earth and heaven and the living and the dead into a single archive, and his ideas about salvific action at a distance deserve a place alongside other techniques of bookkeeping, paperwork, and recording that have excited recent media historians. If the discourse networks imagined by the mad judge Daniel Paul Schreber can inspire media theorists, why not those of the seer Joseph Smith?6 In suggesting that heaven mirrors earth in its documentary imperfections, that the living alone can rewrite the past on behalf of the dead, and that documents can be fully valid substitutes for firsthand experience, Smith’s ideas seem relatively free of the idealistic pitfalls that haunt Western dreams, both religious and technical, about the superiority of heavenly to earthly documentation, dreams that range from founding debates in Christian theology about the spirit compensating for the deficiencies of the letter up to the recent marketing of the cloud as an ubiquitous and quasi-divine online computing utility.
Out of a vast array of rich materials in Mormon media history, this essay focuses on Smith’s two letters from September 1842 about baptism for the dead, which are at once doctrinal landmarks authorizing the church’s vast genealogical program and fundamental statements about the nature of recording media. The letters have rarely been analyzed or placed in a larger historical context, perhaps due to their rather dry discussion of bureaucratic documentation, and there is certainly much more in them than this essay can address.7 But the apparent mundaneness, I will argue, is a key to their power. The letters show both the cosmic ambitions of a new world religion and the media-technical project of inscribing the entire human family into a single book. A prolific producer of scriptures and revelations, Smith was just as fascinated with the medium of writing for its data processing, even algorithmic powers. Written records not only provided content to read but revealed the structures of creation; they were as ontological as they were informational. Diverse scholars have sought to show Smith’s ties to esoteric sources in folk magic, hermeticism, Kabbalah, and Freemasonry, but the picture is incomplete without his interest in the dusty realms of accounting, archives, and bookkeeping.8 His theurgic audacity expressed itself in part by clerical means. Smith’s materialism went so deep as to find eternity in a ledger.
The second article is by Mason Kamana Allred, a historian and documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers and a Berkeley Ph.D. His essay, “Circulating Specters: Mormon Reading Networks, Vision, and Optical Media,” appeared in the May 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Here is the abstract:
By the early 19th century increased optical deceptions, like the phantasmagoria shows that could conjure up ghostly illusions, challenged biological and spiritual vision in novel ways. Ghosts also circulated with unprecedented ubiquity in printed stories of spectral appearances, from gothic literature to spiritual visions. Within this constellation of developments Joseph Smith’s turn to print media to disseminate his own spectacular vision(s) should be understood as a cultural project to train vision and render it reproducible. The turn to publishing visionary accounts and instructions on avoiding deception coupled late romantic thought with modern practices of observing for early Mormons who were unsure if they could trust their eyes. Through a media archaeological approach to the religion’s initial reading network, this article argues that early Mormon texts taught readers how to properly see, discern, and become vigilant observers as a spiritual and modern necessity.
Mason’s essay will be available for free for the next few weeks here. Enjoy!