The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indigenous Land is an account of Frederick Du Vernet’s missionary labors in Ontario and British Columbia, from 1898 to 1924, with final attention to his late-in-life embrace of radio as a model and metaphor for trans-regional spiritual connection. At least that is the story suggested by the book’s title. But there is more at stake here than the reconstruction of one man’s journey at the margins of Canadian empire, where he sought to convert Indigenous communities to Anglican Christianity, or the recovery of that man’s marginal notes in publications on psychology and telepathy, where he devised his own philosophy of mind. Much more, indeed.
Pamela Klassen skillfully leads readers to consider important underlying and interconnected concerns throughout The Story of Radio Mind, including occasions of church-state cooperation in Canada, Ojibwe medicinal and burial practices, Ts’msyen and Nisga’a storytelling conventions, land theft and sovereignty claims, intra-Anglican institutional competition, railway building, Indigenous residential schools, trends in psychical research, and the colonial origins of canonical works in academic anthropology. Moreover, readers learn here—in core chapters on photography, map-making, printing presses, and radio—about the ways in which different technologies mediated the spiritual aspirations and effects of Dominion itself, or, as Klassen puts it, how they “were at the heart of the negotiations and contests that made possible the invention of the new Canadian nation.” Operating in multiple registers—and with recurring attention to Klassen’s personal investments in matters of research design and narrative method—The Story of Radio Mind encourages deep reflection on the interdependent relationship between margins and metropoles in North American history and historiography, and it calls scholars to account both for previous failings and future possibilities of self-reflexive storytelling at the intersection of religious studies, Indigenous studies, and media studies.
This is a remarkable book. It is also a difficult book to respond to—and I admit to hours spent staring at blank pages and discarded sentences, before finally writing these. Where might I begin, to do justice to Klassen’s call to consider the stuff and state of religion in technological modernity, alongside also the disciplinary commitments of modern scholarship? Anticipating other responses by people better versed than I in twentieth-century missionary history and sovereignty disputes, not to mention anthropological methods, I have elected to focus first—in the spirit of Klassen’s text and data—on my own marginalia. In particular, I am drawn back to one of the notes that I made while reading The Story of Radio Mind, a banal question that is perhaps also the most pressing: “Is this really a story about radio mind?”
That question came to me several times, especially in the middle chapters of Radio Mind. These include the chapters on photography, wherein Klassen describes Du Vernet’s efforts to stage visual testimonies to Indigenous culture and conversions, the likes of which were often resisted by his would-be subjects; on cartography, wherein we learn how railway surveyors and government agents mapped visions of white settlement and Canadian Dominion onto Indigenous lands, with Du Vernet’s help; and printing presses, the massive “iron pulpits” by which Du Vernet’s missionary contemporaries published accounts of their spiritual successes, but which Indigenous groups also used to contest governmental and corporate offenses against them. Each of these chapters offers a master class in technology and material culture studies for students of religion, especially in contexts of settler colonialism. By this I mean firstly that Klassen pays close attention to the social significance of different media’s physical componentry and productive capacity. She notes, for instance, that—partly because of the bulky equipment involved, as well as its limited technical capacities—white makers of photographs, maps, and newsletters necessarily enlisted Native participation and cooperation, which they sometimes secured and oftentimes did not. (One moment of non-participation, expertly analyzed, was Ojibwe avoidance of Du Vernet’s camera, which Klassen reads not as a function of concerns about “soul-stealing,” per se, but about land-stealing.) Moreover, while such products manifested the mythic aspirations and “imagined communities” of both Christian and Canadian expansionists, they never really erased the Indigenous cartographic or storytelling practices with which they have remained in dynamic tension for generations. In sum, Klassen offers, in these middle chapters, stories about three would-be media of Dominion by or against which missionaries, businessmen, politicians, and Indigenous communities made and contested claims to sovereignty and cultural integrity. Photographs, maps, and newsletters were—despite, or perhaps because of, their affective and effective ambiguities—powerful platforms for religious visions in and of modernity.
How and why is this related to radio mind? At one level, the answer is clear: Du Vernet’s notions of automatic thought transference, inspired by the idea if not also the mechanics of radio, was the last in a series of technophilic dreams for the spiritual connection of Canada’s margins and metropoles. More than that, Du Vernet considered radio mind to be the rightful means of global sympathy and social justice, the likes of which would pacify otherwise discordant relations—including perhaps those wrought by his and his colleagues’ earlier frontier experiments with technology. Radio mind was the culmination of his life’s work, according to Du Vernet, and Klassen likewise announces it as a cumulative horizon for her book’s interpretive labors.
But radio mind was different than photo-imagination, map-mind, or print-perception (if you will) not only in terms of its developmental chronology or utopian aspirations, but also with respect to its place and placelessness in the Indigenous communities of Du Vernet’s erstwhile concern. By this I mean, in part, that Du Vernet developed his theories of radio mind while reading books written by Henri Bergson, William James, and other white men, in imaginary conversation with immediate white family members, and in essays intended for a white Anglican readership. Not only that, but—perhaps bolstered by a dissociation from actual radio mechanics and networks, the likes of which may have permitted Du Vernet to perceive or maintain certain distinctions between his “white work” and “Indigenous work”—Du Vernet did not explicitly develop or apply radio mind in conversation with Indigenous communicants or in matters of Indigenous welfare. This need not be read as tragic, necessarily, given the violence of previous attempts to enlist Indigenous people as subjects or agents of new media. But Klassen does see in it a certain missed opportunity, nonetheless, insofar as Du Vernet’s late life was otherwise characterized by increasing concern with and opposition to contemporaneous church-state alliances and boarding school initiatives that threatened Native communities. Du Vernet’s “scientific” reflections and “episcopal” critiques were separated by mere moments in his life and mere pages in his diary.
What if he had connected them? What if Du Vernet had developed or applied radio mind’s egalitarian impulses relative to the social concerns that otherwise enveloped him? Alternately, what if he had sought “a spiritual current that would bind together across people, spirits, and the energy of love” in “legislation or church lobbying” as much as in “scientific experiment”? Du Vernet did neither and instead kept his interests and outlets separate. Klassen suggests, therefore, that radio mind, for all of its well-intentioned “intensity,” was characterized more by “inconsistency” and indeed “failure” when it came to being “a tool of healing in the midst of the piercing violence of family annihilation, cultural genocide, and church and state deceit that was the residential school system.”
Historians of religion are familiar with problems of archival disconnection and silence, not to mention the willful avoidance of integrative thought and self-reflection, especially with respect to Indigenous-white interaction and influence. Klassen skillfully reads into these gaps throughout this book, rightly refusing to allow certain subjects’ insistence on categorical distinctions to preclude deep analysis into their mechanical and affective relations. But one reason why the story of radio mind first struck me as different than the story of photography or the like, at least in terms of its telling, is that Klassen’s approach to gap-reading is somewhat distinct here. If earlier chapters sought to recover the technologies by which colonial populations were simultaneously divided and connected, this last section (on my reading) attends more to the ways in which technological metaphors can themselves work with or against such networked awareness in history and the modern academy. Both approaches suggest new ways forward in the study of religion and/in modernity, and both demonstrate, in different ways, how modernity is co-producing of both indigeneity and Indigenous studies. But it is noteworthy that Klassen’s chapter on “frequencies for listening” begins by tacking more closely with Du Vernet’s own inclination to engage with radio mind and religious studies alike through metaphor and morphology, intellectual history and philosophical association. By the end of this chapter Klassen also will challenge Du Vernet’s desire—as well as contemporary scholarly inclinations—to hold separate the stuff of religion and politics, thought and discipline, study and activism. Klassen morphs metaphors (back) into networks. But I do not want to get ahead of her too much, nor indeed to jump too quickly over my sense of a narrative or methodological shift here, as Klassen experiments with a different route through archival silences to scholarly connections.
What I am pointing to is the fact that, when seeking the unspoken connections between Du Vernet’s ostensibly parallel concerns of psychic communication networks and the networks of Native (re)education, Klassen embarks not on a story of radio’s colonial circuitry, as she might have in the middle chapters, but instead questions whether radio mind itself might have philosophical or intellectual affinities with Indigenous theories and ways of knowing. Put differently, Klassen asks whether “Du Vernet’s spiritual imagination” demonstrated influence by or sympathy with Indigenous peoples’ “spiritual conditions and practices of spiritual communication,” even when Du Vernet refused to name them as such—let alone to engage them in relation to politics. This is a difficult question to answer. Du Vernet did not need much beyond Bergson and company to develop a theory about the nature of radio mind, just as “Du Vernet did not need radio mind to reach” certain conclusions about the wrongheadedness of his church and country’s boarding school plan. Klassen readily acknowledges this, even as she knows well the dangers of accepting at face value any writings, from any colonial context, where authors make little mention of Native presence and influence. People think always in relation to the networks in which they move, regardless of whether they acknowledge as much.
Klassen thus invites us to undertake a thought experiment alongside Du Vernet’s thought experiment: to think critically and creatively about the materials that do and do not reveal the complexities of human connection; and to consider morphology as well as materiality as grounds for scholarly re-engagement. If archives are always partial and scholarly connections are always partly imaginary, as they are, then Klassen discovers in radio mind her own kind of metaphor for finding—and finding sympathy with—sources that we don’t always have, and which are seldom announced to be in direct connection anyway. Such findings are meritorious insofar as they then reconnect us to material conditions and spiritual concerns of the moment, as well as to those of our present. Thus whereas Du Vernet eschewed explicit consultation with Indigenous thinkers when developing a theory of modern religiosity—and whereas he resisted connecting his theoretical and political concerns, as well—would-be postcolonial and decolonial scholars have no such option. We would do well both to network and broadcast our disciplinary commitments, according to Klassen’s model.
“Is this really a story about radio mind?” I thought not, on first reading, insofar as radio mind is the obvious stuff and substance of only the concluding chapters of Du Vernet’s life as well as Klassen’s book, and Klassen’s approach there is somewhat different than in other chapters. But in another sense—and a greater register—the answer is decidedly yes. For, The Story of Radio Mind is a story of Klassen’s own coming into sympathy with and alongside Du Vernet’s coming into sympathy, even as it questions the grounds and applications of the latter, and while it offers up both in the spirit of reconciliation. This is a tough act to follow, and, like me, other scholars may find themselves staring at blank pages for some time before beginning to write anew. Not least because, when doing so, they/we will need to be as attentive as Klassen is to the difference between potlach and confession, to ensure that all “incitements to discourse” in archival gaps do not (re)produce more predictable and problematic assertions about Native culture, ontologies, spiritualities, and the like. Thankfully, Klassen has offered one such model, and for that I am very grateful. She charts a way forward, and I am eager to see where she, her students, and the greater field go next.