Scholars & Saints

Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism (feat. Mason Kamana Allred)

August 09, 2023 Stephen Betts Episode 39
Scholars & Saints
Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism (feat. Mason Kamana Allred)
Show Notes Transcript

Today on Scholars & Saints, I'm joined by Mason Kamana Allred to talk about his new book Seeing Things: Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism (UNC 2023). We discuss German media theory, feminist new materialism, cybernetics, microphotography, and spiritual feedback loops. 

Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism

Stephen Betts: I'm joined today by Mason Kamana Allred, assistant professor of Communication, Media and Culture at Brigham Young University—Hawaii. He is the author of Weimar Cinema: Embodiment and Historicity, as well as Seeing Things: Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism, which we're chatting about today. Thanks for being here today, Mason. 

Mason Kamana Allred: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. 

Stephen Betts: Mason, tell me about this gorgeous cover art. Of course, our listeners can't see this, but go look it up. Gorgeous Cover art on, uh, this book published by University of North Carolina Press. 

MKA: Yeah, that's, that's an original illustration by Jack Soren, who's a lived here in the community, local Hawaiian guy, awesome artist. But I had approached him because I really wanted this image on the cover, and I wanted a new version of it. But I wanted something that got at this interaction between Joseph Smith and a stone in a hat, and and I really wanted to emphasize the agency between the two. So, we tried to exaggerate or overemphasize the light projecting forth outta that hat. You'll see when you look at the cover. But I really wanted that kind of stark interaction going there from the very get-go from the cover. So, I'm really impressed with what he came up with and liked the look. 

SB: Yeah. One thing I really like about this is, uh, I mean, in addition to thinking about the interaction between things and people and agency, just kind of shaking up the, uh, visual representation of Joseph Smith and translation, which we're, you know, Latter-day Saints, uh, in the art world are very used to kind of like almost photorealistic or, you know, very representational art.

And so, to have something that's a little more interpretive, uh, I think it's a nice, a nice addition. We're gonna get into some theory today ‘cause this is a very theoretically driven book, or very theoretically scaffolded book. But I gotta ask why so much theory? I mean, your background, of course, your graduate work is very theoretical in German media studies, but you're also, you also have experience as a documentary historian with the Joseph Smith Papers. So, you kind of bring two, usually separate expertises to this project. So, I wanna hear more about why did you decide to make this really theory driven? 

MKA: Yeah, that's exactly right. And you really did your homework on my background, but it's totally true. The way you put it is that coming from my graduate work, it was very theoretical. And I was in a German studies department, my emphasis was film and media studies. So, there was theory everywhere I turned. And I love that. I really appreciate it because my undergraduate work had been like straight history. I mean, I'd done a lot of cultural studies too, but, but yeah, a lot of theory in grad school.

I mean, I'm working with people like Linda Williams doing like body genre stuff and Niklaus Largier doing like history of the body and emotions and ecstasy. So, it's very much driven that way in a lot of German media theory. And then I'm at the Joseph Smith Papers working there at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.

And that project I loved was so happy to be a part of it, but it was, the intention was to be sort of dry dispassionate, just like straight history based off the documents. And so, bringing those two impulses together. Yeah, you, you definitely, I hope see it in this book where I wanted it very much archivally driven, as much as theory driven, and I try to bring both of those together in it.

And I'm glad that you felt that, because that is my background is thinking in ways, like, I think that theory works very much like this book's topic is, it's, they're lenses, right? They're lenses that make things visible to us that we otherwise would simply neglect or miss. And I love that. I love when we see new things and appreciate new light.

So, I wanted that here and I, I really hope that there's a space in Mormon studies to embrace more theory and to let us theorize beyond what we've done so far. There's been some great work, but I really wanted to kind of push that front a little bit as well. And, you know, I was sitting on the archive at Church History Library as a historian there.

So, a lot of what I was able to do is I was very privileged in the sense that we had the resources where I could literally just sit at my desk and call up any document, you know, and it would show up at my desk within like, usually 15 minutes. So, I was just there, just like devouring all this, all these sources, all these primary sources from the archive, bringing it together. But trying to bring this lens that I had from German media theory to think about the history of Mormonism in hopefully new ways. 

SB: So, you got me really intrigued now. How do you as, I mean this is not really, your path is not really the standard path to working for the Joseph Smith Papers or the Church History Library. We typically think about people going to American history programs, things like that. German media theory is not the normal path. So how did you end up doing documentary history at the Joseph Smith Papers? 

MKA: Yeah, that was actually really interesting is, part of it is because I knew a couple people there and they had known what I was up to and followed some of my work. And so, in conversation they had floated the idea like, “Hey, you know, why don't you come over here and work for us?” And again, I was a huge fan of the project and really liked the idea of being part of that project. But I was hesitant at first because of exactly what you just said. My, my first reaction was, “It's not really my thing because you want American historians and I'm really more been working on German media theory, German film, this kind of thing.” Even though I've kept up with the historiography, I was always interested in Mormon studies, Mormon history, but their contention was that like they actually wanted more perspectives and they wanted a more diverse range of scholars helping them out there.

And I actually liked that reaction. I was impressed by that. So I did do the interviews and go through all that and thought it'd be a great opportunity. I did go into it knowing there would be an end to the project. It was a temporary project, so I was of course thinking in terms of what would come next after that, but I just, I didn't wanna pass it up, so I turned down, you know, another offer to be teaching like German somewhere else. But I just thought it was the right thing at the right time for me, and it really was a great learning experience, man. It felt like a second PhD in a lot of ways. 

SB: Can you say a little bit more about your interests in German media theory? I mean, this is something that I'm not very familiar with myself. I've read a little bit around, I know some of the names like [Friedrich] Kittler and stuff like that, mainly from reading John Durham Peters and talking to him on the podcast. But tell us a little bit about like the space and what you're specifically interested in. 

MKA: Yeah, ‘cuz it is really sort of a subfield within media studies or communication studies and it's a little bit niche because it's not what the majority are doing, especially in America. But yeah, German media theory really fascinated me since grad school and I'm glad you mentioned John Durham Peters, who, you know, I was reading in grad school and he hadn't, I hadn't read anything he had done with Mormonism at that point ‘cuz he hadn't read, he hadn't written his record-keeping one about baptisms for the dead. So, I was just reading him as a media theorist and Kittler, as you said, and a few others.

And I just loved the way they approached technologies and the way they saw them as not really a static thing, not really an object, but more of a kind of shifting systems and processes. And the way that they would then be entwined with and shape things like, like logic and boundaries and concepts. And I was kind of blown away by this, especially what is called “media archeology” within that, a kind of a kind of theoretical digging up the past and thinking about those nets of technologies and the way they shaped kind of what is thought and what is expressible and how it's expressed.

I just found that really, really enlightening. And so, for this project, I really applied that in thinking about the Mormon past. And so, for me, like it is with this cover, this interaction between technologies and what are called in German media theory, “cultural techniques” or the ways that the humans end up using these and that interaction between techniques and technologies really are for me, creationary acts. I mean, you really, you're creating things out of that interaction. And in German media theory, I mean, you take like a super, super fundamental example of this and someone like, um, Bernhard Siegert is one of these practitioners and you know, he describes even like a door as a medium where like you think about how a door works and it's so true as he says it is a medium. But that's the technology right the door. But the human opening and closing is a cultural technique that sort of processes and through that embodied act creates inside-outside. So, the medium is the channel and the creation of inside-outside as concepts in the real world and in your mind is facilitated through cultural technique with technology.

So that's kind of a simplified example of that, but you extend that out and start thinking about the ways that, you know, Latter-day Saints are adopting new technologies. And the way they're using them to filter and to create boundaries and to ever recreate what it means to be a Latter-day Saint, what it means to be Mormon as I see that shifting over time. And very much imbricated with, entangled with the technologies they're using. And, I never wanna lose sight of that relationship. So, it is true in this book that I'm very much foregrounding the power, importance and agency of technologies. And we have had some good work on like materialism and so forth in Mormonism, but I feel like this brings a little something new to the table. I hope that's a contribution is to think more seriously about the role of technologies and the entanglement of humans with things. 

SB: Yeah, I, so I'm an associational thinker, so when you're talking, I'm kind of thinking a bunch of different things. But the first thing that comes to mind is just yesterday I finished one of these popular books by the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh called How to See. So, it's kind of related to this topic. And in the book, he writes about something very similar to how you discuss using German media theory and feminist new materialism, the relationship between people and things and agency and how when you look at something, when you really look at something, you see that it's not actually just a thing, it's made up of all of its relations and all of its history, you know, if it's a person, they're made up of their ancestors and all of the kind of interactions those people had with their environments and stuff like that. Is there any kind of formal relationship between like Buddhist philosophy and some of these media theories that are engaging with things and people? 

MKA: I don't think so. That's beautiful the way you described that. And I think that sort of attests to the fact that there's certainly a truth about this that resonates in different discourses or ways of approaching it.

I wouldn't say that it's grounded or inspired by Eastern philosophy as much as I would say that it seems to have been more the kind of development across the 20th century especially, but more of a kind of radicalization and a shift in going from structuralism to post-structuralism and sort of taking what even sort of what Foucault, Michel Foucault had been doing with the ideas of say like an episteme or what is kind of knowable in a given time and what is speakable in a given time and what counts for truth and to kind of ground that in. hardware. To ground that in technologies. That's sort of the turn that the Kittler’s doing Because once you do that, then you start bringing in the later theory of like Bruno Latour and actor-network theory, which is getting closer to what you're saying there.

And then yeah, feminist new materialism where you cannot really separate, they're kind of mutually constituted right. Words and the world or discourse and material. And so it's interesting that the further developed the theory gets, and even with feminist new materialism, the more scientific it gets. I mean, quite literally it's very scientific. The more it actually lines up with some of these things you're talking about in Eastern ways of thinking, which is so fascinating to me. 

SB: So, you write that “Mormons are fashioned by looking at stuff to see things.”[1] This is kind of the way you bring it all together at the end. I really like that concise statement that you have fashion by looking at stuff to see things.

We need to unpack that quite a bit. But we've kind of just opened up a little bit some of the interesting questions that German media theory makes possible in the study of Mormonism. So why is it helpful to think about media practices and sensory effects to understand how religion works, not let alone Mormonism, but religion. How does it help to think about these media practices, these sensory effects for religion? 

MKA: Yeah, because I think you don't wanna lose sight of the fact that you need, obviously you need meaning it's the creation of meaning or religious experience and devotion even. And how much of that meaning is not just in heads and hearts, but it actually in bodies.

And so, the way that it's mediated and worked through a culture is really important. So yeah, the way I tried to phrase that line is, again as simplistic as it may seem. I wanted to sort of play with the passive in there and I wanted to sort of have them being fashioned by, but also doing looking like the cover again to kind of get this, this interaction going.

And it's really interesting with Mormonism to me, the way that vision works, ‘cuz it is definitely a culture of seeing and eventually very much a culture of being seen, being seen in a certain way, in a certain light. So, religion kind of turns on this idea of the power of vision. And for Mormonism especially, like you think about Latter-day Saint history and I even opened with some of this in the book that, you know, some of their revealed new scripture, like in the Book of Abraham, the way they talk about the creation of the world is so fascinating because it's very much different than Garden of Eden in Genesis where it's like the gods plural are watching matter until it obeys.

Think about that configuration like the gods are watching until matter obeys. So, the ordering power of vision is present there. There's some sort of agency of matter or obeying, like that's precisely what I'm trying to tease out and thread through this history I'm telling. And then you have as the original kind of Mormon media moment, the kind of sort of first screen you have, Joseph looking at a stone in a hat to translate, I mean something's being projected to him on the surface of that stone, or in his mind, different ways it's described. But these really signal to me that there's been a power in Mormonism in teaching, disciplining, training ways of looking. Latter-day Saints are looking at things and sometimes it's the same thing that other people are looking at, but the way that they're taught to feel it and interpret it and do something about it is often a bit unique and has a certain cultural force to it that does work as a religion and sort of binds them together by creating boundaries and pushing them forward in certain directions. And so, in a very much media archeological vein, I try to uncover some of the strange twists and turns and some of the starts and stops ways it could have gone. Things that were happening in this very way, the way that sensory perception is happening with media as interactions. 

SB: So, you talk about something you call “technologies of vision.” Obviously that word “technologies” in its everyday sense is not really what you mean. I mean, some of that valence is still in there, but you've talked so far about media as things that can be manipulated through techniques. Talk a little bit about what you mean by “technologies” and why is it that Mormonism is described in the book or thematized as using technologies of vision? 

MKA: Yeah, I think there is a tendency, even within Latter-day Saint tradition, to almost think of technologies as these kind of neutral things that could be used for better or for worse. So, it depends on what you do with them. So, it's all about the cultural technique, but technologies as a thing used to accomplish something is really interesting in Mormonism because it's much more complex than that. And I would say, my argument is that what's happening out of that and the sort of the type of Latter-day Saint that emerges out of that is created in that. It's not like there's a Latter-day Saint and they say, “I'm gonna use this for good or for bad.” It's actually, again, this reactionary interaction that causes that to happen through using technologies. 

Now in the book, it is true that I'm interested in the way that the conceptions around them are entangled with the technology. But I do try to give people some solid ground to stand on by saying, “Okay, I'm gonna focus on here these general technologies of print, panorama paintings, photography, typewriters, film, microfilm, and television.” I do try to give some scaffolding. It doesn't feel like I'm just going all over the place, but as you start to narrate through those, it is really fascinating how much it is about vision, about ways of seeing it, about how these technologies can extend and enhance, and in some ways, it is thought of that like you will see if you read them closely, you'll see in and through these technologies, beyond them, but something spiritual. So, they become spiritual technologies, really. And again, back to that seer stone, you can, you know, it would be easy to say, “Oh, well, Joseph used a stone a little bit, and then he moved away from it. He could just do it in his mind, you know, it's closer to like spiritualism or something.”

But the fact is the stone keeps coming back, you know? And then even he dictates revelation that everyone at some point in Heaven will have a white stone to get all the revelation they need. So, this idea that you could look into a technology for vision, like with your natural eyes, and it would somehow enhance into a spiritual perception is just like paramount in Mormonism. So, if you're gonna look at a microfilm screen, you might actually be seeing your ancestors through it, not just their names on an index. 

SB: Let's talk about, let's get into some of these case studies that you do. I'm really intrigued by your take on the Mormon Panorama. You talk about a couple of different panoramas. I talked recently to Nathan Rees about his book on Mormon Visual Culture, and he focuses on C.C.A. Christensen's Panorama. He talks about it as a kind of important site for consolidating cultural memory. You write about it in a different way of almost this kind of paradigm, the way I read you, a kind of paradigm of the moving image and how that helps us to see something about the ways that Latter-day Saints are using technologies of vision to do various things for religious experience. So can talk more about the Panorama. 

MKA: Yeah. Thank you. I love the way you set it up with Nathan Rees too. He's awesome. I'm working with him on another project right now. His work is just really great and the way he sees the C.C.A. Christensen panoramas is fascinating, especially with Native Americans, the way they're supposed to be kind of converted, redeemed, but they're always stereotyped.

And actually, you mentioned Nathan, in his book, he does deal with this kind of like interior visions and then like external less, somehow less, less sacred. So, you need some kind of bridging material to deal with that. And so, I think art comes into that realm for him. And he's more interested in the aesthetic dimensions maybe. But you're right that I'm looking before I even get to Christensen, I'm looking at this earlier moment and I'm considering, again, the kind of cultural work these panorama do. And so it is definitely true that they are collective memory, cultural memory projects for sure. But I think if you only looked at it through that lens, you would miss some of what's actually happening here.

And so, for Philo Dibble with his first panorama, this context is so important that it's coming after the death, the assassination of Joseph Smith. And so, this attempt to sort of blow up, enlarge and make visual the death of your prophet, and then to invite everyone to come see it is so important in the moment. So, he's already doing this by like 1845, getting patents, having people come check it out, having people, you know, stand there as models, getting this thing painted. And then what's important is how much this funnels vision, consolidates vision into a vision of Brigham into Brigham. Brigham Young and Brighamite Mormonism as the next path. 

So, it's all about the succession crisis. And so, this idea, as you said of narrating scenes of moving images that at once move you in a bodily sensation way and an emotional way, but also move in a way eventually, you know, Christensen’s will actually move. But even with Dibble’s, with sequence and the idea of movement between a narration is really, really important to these.

That's kinda how the pattern we're working is images in succession. To kind of help support a certain type of succession. And so, Dibble gets his together and gets people looking at them and Brigham Young gives him money, supports him. The other apostles support him in this. I mean, it's very clear that sort of being on the side of controlling the images and the narration, the moving images of what just happened is going to support, bolster and feed into a Brighamite type of Mormonism afterwards.

So yeah, I begin with Philo Dibble, who himself begins with a vision of seeing himself doing something with rolled up paper to affect the Saints and then getting this thing done. And it really is I mean, the move is kind of like for me, you have all these competing visions of Joseph Smith, so he is dead and then he is appearing to his followers. And Christopher James Blythe has written on this previously about the visitations themselves. So, I kind of dig into that, push it further and connect it with the media projects happening that you have these visitations and they're of comfort and cheer of course, but it's also very threatening, dangerous to have this many as far as authority and how this thing's gonna work out because there's no clear plan of what to do after Joseph's gone. So that means, in a way, the panorama, the first one works as if to say you don't need your vision of Joseph. We got him right here. Come look at this singular shared vision of Joseph. This is the one, and by the way, I am officially connected to and authorized by Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and others. 

So that's a really interesting configuration of authority, narration, visual power, and then literally getting bodies of members to come together, stand together and look at the same image. That consolidation of vision is really, really important to me. So that project is clear what's happening with Philo Dibble. Very powerful, apparently, and he continues it. I mean, it overlaps with C.C.A. Christensen's, but that's the first initial moment, that spark and how it's connected to Brigham Young sort of taking over in a sense. 

The later one with C.C.A. Christensen is a bit different. Then you have, you know, images actually in succession rolled along and it is more of a cultural memory project, right? It's after the fact. We've moved out West, we're thinking back on what happened here, connecting it, a kind of reason why we're here, telling the story of how we got here, connecting us back to those eastern lands that we've lost, left. And that's part of it as well. But as you said, taken together, it is, I think in a lot of ways, the first moment of Latter-day Saints becoming a visual viewing public for moving images like you had readership. And that that network of readers that I cover in the first chapter is really, really important, right? To get them to have visions to provoke these, to fill things. But to learn to become an audience, to visual, not even entertainments to, but to visual presentations, to displays that will have, uh, religious valence is, is really, really important. And you teach 'em to be that audience before you put them together and take 'em out West. And I see these panoramas very much connected to all of that. 

SB: Well, and this kind of movement also creates the illusion of all seeing vision, which as you point out, especially in the chapter on cinema that these technologies are obviously not all seeing, right? Like things like race gets excluded, you know, people of color get coded or, or the exclusion of people of color gets coded into, uh, this presentation of whiteness that characterizes the, the consolidated vision in early Latter-day Saint cinema. So, talk a little bit about the first Mormon films and what's their context, what kinds of cultural work are they doing? 

MKA: Yeah, thank you. That's important to me because, again, if I'm talking about filtering processes, about, media interactions that create concepts and boundaries, inevitably, certain things are filtered out for that creation, but it never has to be the way it is. And so that's why it's so important to go back and look at these. And you're right with, um, it can happen with any of 'em, but especially with that first film in 1913, 100 years of Mormonism, this attempt by the Church to invest some money, get some people together and try to tell their story as a history film. It is important because at the time coming in the early 20th century, as it does, it's still a very important project to assimilate and to sort of enact American belonging, and it's really fascinating. I think this is a shift you'll fill in the book is what could be a little bit more exceptional, a little bit more maybe radical of these kind of American scoundrels, these Mormons.

In the 19th century, you can feel the shift in their visual technologies into the 20th century. And they actually very quickly get pretty good at a lot of these technologies, like very media savvy users in the 20th century. But what happens in some of them is, you're right, is things like race and gender or sexuality end up being filtered out in ways that can be quite harmful. So with this first film, they, yeah, they put together this feature-length film. It's gonna break all these records. It's gonna be super long and do these amazing things. We only have a few scenes left that are actually extant from that thing, but we have great reviews of it, descriptions and so forth. And what really stood out to me was the way the film offered an opportunity for them to kind of perform whiteness.

And so this of course builds on a lot of work that like Paul Reeve has done, but also just as much work from Judith Weisenfeld on some of these early films and race. And also one of my professors at Berkeley, Kristen Whissel, who worked a lot in this period on silent film and traffic, the way that like traffic and modernity happens with circulation. Getting into that circulation means you're modern. Which is an interesting kind of film study, secular side of the secularism thesis. And so, for Latter-day Saints, this film gives them a chance to one, be filmmakers, which is a very white thing to do. We create a film, we put it into circulation, maybe even make money off it, but we put out information. It's an educational film too. That's the kind of role of the reformer doing that, but then also on screen. So that's more kind of the medium, but then the content as well. They find ways to present themselves as victims in a lot of ways, which of course, they had been in the 19th century. But it's interesting that they want to replay that scene at Carthage where the gentleman have like blackened their faces to attack Joseph. They wanna recreate scenes where people are done up as Native Americans, Indians attacking them and making stampedes and so forth. And this is taken from the book that the film is based on, but now you have a chance to make it visual and very sort of sensational on screen. And, and that's the way it's being projected for people literally.

So, it works as a kind of visual way of changing conceptions about Latter-day Saints wheret he movie “Victim of Mormons” of 1911, before this, had sort of had them as hypnotizing, almost like vampires who were out taking white women and trafficking them back to Utah, forcing them into polygamy. So that kind of white slave-trafficking, that human trafficking that the Latter-day Saints are being accused of, and that they're seducing women with their eyes, with their vision. So, then these silent films around that period from 1911 clear up to like 1922, play with that idea. And sometimes they'll open up with like a Mormon staring at you, like looking at the camera. So, it's very uncomfortable for the audience that like, “Oh no, he's caught me in his gaze.” So that's what's, what's going on is this idea of a dangerous, seductive hypnotic gaze from Latter-day Saints.

And then that's flipped in this film where they're gonna actually reenact and show you Joseph Smith's gaze and show you some of his visions. And so, the scene that I was interested in that's actually extant, you can watch this, is Joseph in his bedroom praying, and then Moroni shows up and this is a double exposure where you have him appear and then disappear so that they use a magic trick to tell their history, which is interesting by the way, that has to work out. So, whiteness is kind of through this thing and the way it's even in the ads for it. They'll say things like, this is an exciting historical revelation of 100 years of American history, or just another part of American history. Like it's very deliberately marketed as these are frontier Americans who were victims and did amazing things and blossomed and as part of American history. And it just so happens it comes at a time where in 1913 and around that period, there's even discourse around like eugenics and like racial security and becoming white. And I think the film partakes in some of that. 

SB: So I wanna pivot and talk about microfilm, microphotography. This is my favorite part of the book the 1940s, you have the beginning of the theory of cybernetics. Hopefully you can describe that a little bit for us. Talk about the rise of microphotography, its relationship with cybernetic feedback and religious experience.

MKA: Yeah, the timing is just really interesting because, you know, you have the Utah Genealogical Society. You have them working on doing family history and thinking in terms of like how to best do this. And what was really interesting, maybe before you can get to the cybernetics, to lead up to it, you have to imagine the kind of story of where their headspace is to get to this point where in the late 19th century, especially with the proliferation of rituals in the temple, ordinances for dead members that expands, right? Originally with Joseph Smith, you just have baptisms and you first have 'em like in the Mississippi River, and then this stuff expands, and the first idea is you're gonna do it for your family members. Directly ones you probably knew as this vision of the dead expands to be, you know, more extended family members or clear back in time. And then eventually just anyone beyond your own blood family. 

Then they start to conceive—that as the leaders of the church especially—start to conceive of genealogy as this huge project. And it's just “daunting data” is the way I put it. And the way they describe it, the numbers they throw out are, are just insane. I don't know where they get them. They're probably reading it somewhere, but they describe a lot of people in America in the late 19th century getting this fervor, what they'll call the “spirit of Elijah” to want to trace back their lineage. This of course for me and for others, is connected very much to, again, ideas of whiteness and finding place in America, but there also is an impulse to look back and to try to redeem them for Latter-day Saints to try to offer them ordinances.

And of course, you know, Wilfred Woodruff is doing this for like the Founding Fathers and so forth, but this expands the idea of how many there are to do. So, how do you possibly cover this? And the way they talk about it in the 1870s, eighties, nineties especially, is that we need revelation. And some of that's gonna come from angels and the Urim and Thummim.

So again, back to our point earlier, that stone just keeps coming back up in my book. And it just keeps like it's raising its head. And so, they say, you know, “We're gonna need to get revelation through the Urim and Thummim that will tell us how to find the records or how to find deceased individuals.” We don't know about to the extent that like when the Manti [Utah] Temple was dedicated, the next day Wilford Woodruff, this is ‘88, goes in there and actually consecrates it [the seer stone] on the altar, for that very purpose that this stone will help us get the revelations we need to do the genealogy work we need to do, cuz we need help. We can't do it alone. The numbers are huge. So now you get into the early 20th century, they wanna do this, but like, how do you pull it off? You need revelation, angels, and stones. But then all of a sudden this technology comes along of microfilm, which can duplicate exactly through microphotography, right? Tiny, tiny pictures, duplicate records and have them be available across the world. 

And this is especially in by the late thirties when they're looking at this and Ernst Koehler who's an immigrant from Germany is pushing this on the [Genealogical] Society there in Utah. And right at this moment, the real push is to rescue the records ‘cuz with another World War on the horizon, they're worried about losing all these things throughout Europe and all over. So, they wanna rescue these by photographing them. And then you can have 'em all over. And then you have all kinds of people thinking about if we do this, not just Latter-day Saints, but you know, H.G. Wells and um, Wilhelm Ostwald in Germany, like we'll have a “world brain.”

We can share our knowledge across the world, a shared library that will lead towards peace and connection ‘cuz we'll have all the information we need. Okay, so that's happening, and they realize, “We gotta save these records and now we have a medium that might be able to do it.” Then after the war in ‘48, when Norbert Wiener writes his book on cybernetics, you have this idea that becomes very influential in some form or another, [no matter] how deeply they understood it or not, it becomes influential.

You know, we're into this realm of sort of systems theory and function and the way to make these efficient, to optimize systems and to think about relations and sort of even workflow, you'd probably call it today, but the way that information flows, and things happen between people and their systems, and in order to prove this, what you need is to have somehow engineered into this some feedback loops where it will come back and gain communication or gain information to know how to improve upon that.

I mean, we're like in the radicalized version of this today with algorithms and ChatGPT and so forth. But kind of simply said back then it is systems that will gain information about what's happening to make sure it's happening, to improve the efficiency. So that needs to be orderly and happening. This sounds great for corporations. This sounds great for a lot of institutions to try to optimize what they're doing and become efficient. 

For microfilm and redeeming the dead, now you have something interesting I see happening where they wanna get this done and they wanna make it, you know, orderly and efficient. ‘Cuz they realize by, I think in the forties or at least by the fifties, they realized that like up to about 50% of their work in the temple has been duplication. I mean, what an unfortunate realization. So, they wanna make sure this is happening correctly. But the feedback loops, I'm most interested here. They do get better and better with machines and cards and microfilm, but I'm more interested in these spiritual feedback loops, the ways that Latter-day Saints, they're looking is just so weird and I mean that in a great way, but like the way they look at things is so interesting. Where the microfilm is this pretty simplistic technology that's just gonna kind of blow up the micro photographs on a screen that you can scroll through. But they purchase all these reading machines in Utah and start using them. And then very quickly you have all these great reports of like visionary experiences at the machines that are entangled with it. Because what happens in the way they describe it is very much like microfilm readery in the sense that it is connected to that technology. And the spirits that show up to them are talking to them, working with them in ways that connect with how that technology works and the way some of that machine would be functioning.

And often what they're doing is, is giving that feedback loop of it's working. Like the stuff you're doing that, those tiny little techniques at that screen of scanning and making notes or whatever, it's working. It's having an effect on the other side. And so, this goes back to some of the work done with this kind of action at a distance. And actually John [Durham] Peters does a lot of this kind of thing too, where these tiny techniques here can have these grand effects or move things over there. And they see themselves pulling this off and getting the confirmation that they're pulling it off because of these spiritual feedback loops, some of which are just really fascinating.

SB: What was the most surprising thing? I mean, of all the surprising things in this book, what surprised you most in your research as you were working through these various media moments?

MKA: I think the surprising thing is how important these technologies were at some of the major shifts that I was kind of already familiar with. That is like some of these beats in the history of Mormon is like, I know from other people's work and really great work out there. But I, I was just sort of surprised as going through, cuz it initially was just like my own interest in like, what's going on with technologies, what, what's happening when these things are being adopted and thought about and used, I was actually surprised how integral they really were. In other words, the research convinced me more than I was as I started, I just thought like, Hey, it'd be fascinating. But they really do provide the infrastructure as it were, the ability to affect this change over time we see. Especially from outsiders to very much insiders in America, ‘cuz it is a kind of American focused book for better, for worse.

But it is kind of telling that story so that clear integral role technologies played in that shift over time was actually a bit of a surprise to me and makes me wanna do even more research that way. And then one of the chapters that really expanded my knowledge and was really fun to write was the third chapter about women at typewriters and using photography because I just had to reach out to others. And so, I got a lot of help from Kate Holbrook and from Jenny Reeder and from Lisa Olson Tate and others that were around. And that was interesting because it almost works as a potential way things could have gone. You know what I mean? It's one of these moments where it's shifting at the turn of the century, the turn of the 20th century, to see the way women were able to use these technologies as reproduction, right, like you could sit at a typewriter and women were invited to enter the workforce and type up men's words and reproduce their words to be in amanuensis, to be a secretary. And women were invited to work at these photography studios, usually as an assistant, to reproduce reality on a sensitive plate that would capture light.

And at this very moment, the Manifesto comes out in the nineties and you know, Latter-day Saints are supposed to drop polygamy, and so they write things in their publications about how like, “Well now we have these ‘surplus girls.’ What are they gonna do? You know, they're not wives, so they have to enter the workforce.” So, what vocations would be good? And they write all this stuff about, you know, what would be excellent for a young woman, do this and this, nursing education. But they say, typewriting, photography, these are great for women. And you have this moment where Latter-day Saint women and women across the nation can enter this workforce.

But again, the ideas, often you're gonna reproduce man's ideas, man's work, man's vision. So, the two I focused on here, Susa Young Gates, daughter of Brigham Young, working at the typewriter and Elfie Huntington working at the camera are just so you know, mind blowing to me because they both start as that. Susa Young Gates is a stenographer when she's young, and then she eventually buys her own typewriter, writes her own stuff, this kind of feminist literature. And in 1920 she writes a new version of Joseph Smith's vision, where she puts a Heavenly Mother in there. And she says, you know, “This vision shows that there's a Heavenly Mother right next to Heavenly Father completely equal in all things.” She offers a way of reproducing men's vision without reproducing them. That is like changing them, critiquing them, expanding them, and then Elfie Huntington's doing similar, really playful things with photography, where in one of these examples you'll see in the book, she recreates this idea of what men want, what the ideal woman would be, “a bachelor's dream,” what they wanna marry, what they wanna take. And she plays with the form in such like, just really smart, funny ways sometimes. And so again, she's playing with men's visions of what women should look like and how the camera itself is sort of in cahoots, is implicated in this process of envisioning women, looking at women, setting this relationship up and media and she pushes back against it and critiques it. That chapter was actually kind of tough to bring together typewriters and photography, but for me it was really, really satisfying to learn as much as I did doing that one, bring it together. So those are a couple examples off the top of my head.

SB: Mason, what do you hope people take away from this book? You've already given us a very concise phrase. “Mormons are fashioned by looking at stuff to see things,” but other than that, what do you want people to take away from this book?

MKA: I think primarily I just, again, I want this appreciation of things, this appreciation of technologies, objects, things, forces dead and undead as I say in the book. These technologies that were used, they're not, they're not baptized, they're not registered on the rolls of the Church, but they were like so important in the construction of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint across time, which then it means, so please, you know, recognize that, appreciate that. Notice the role they have in filtering some in and some out. And then I hope it casts our eyes to the present day that we think a little bit more deeply about how technologies are forming and being formed at this very time. The creation of concepts, identity, and boundaries right now and recognize those can change, those can be done better. They can be done in more inclusive, open, enlightening ways.

SB: That's Mason Kamana Allread talking about his recent book, Seeing Things: Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism from University of North Carolina Press. Thanks for chatting today, Mason. 

MKA: Thanks for having me.

*Transcript has been edited.


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[1] Mason Kamana Allred, Seeing Things: Technologies of Vision and the Making of Mormonism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2023), 185.