This blog is back from the dead (really, sorry about the extended absence)!
I thought it would be fitting to come back with a post on ghosts, spiritualism and seances.
We all know the story of the Salem witch trials, and there is a tendency to look on the 17th century as a dark time of superstition and religious fanaticism, beyond which Americans moved in the age of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, Americans have shown a pervasive fascination with the spirit world, even with the technological and scientific advancements of the 19th century.
During the Salem witch trials and other contemporary accounts of possession, spirits invaded sleeping bodies during the night, in the form of incubii and succubii, and made themselves known through the hysterical (or catatonic) behavior of the victim. At mid-century, however, ghosts became “visible” with the advent of photography.
(Famed spirit photographer Mumler’s famous ghost portrait of Abraham Lincoln)
Spirit photography quickly gained popular credence. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, was a proponent of spirit photography, even after the well-known spiritualist Hope was exposed as a fraud, using the technique of double exposure to create ghostly images.
New communication technologies, like the telephone, emerged at the end of the 19th century and transformed the way the living supposedly contacted the dead. In early American parlor games, “evidence” of ghosts came through knocks, which eventually translated into Morse code as use of the telegraph became more widely spread. By the early 1900’s, ghosts were speaking through gramophones. The plot of Jack Yeats’ play The Silencer revolves around this popular practice of necromancy through the gramophone. In the first act of the play, the seance is clearly a hoax, but then, a ghost appears of his own accord, actively destroying the technology that supposedly summoned spirits from beyond.
Our concepts of the afterlife are closely related to communication technology, and I suggest that this is a reaction against Enlightenment rationality. The intangible and the spiritual haunt our technology and act as a counterbalance to scientific discourse. Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” to discuss alternate modes of knowing that were discredited by science and rationality, and typically relegated to the realm of folklore, superstition and spiritualism.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts suggest that scientific knowledge and belief in the spirit world coexisted– and belief was not relegated to a “clandestine existence in modern society,” as folklorist Marilyn Motz claims (Motz, 341). Rather, the belief in ghosts and spirits cohabits quite openly with science. True, these practices did not hold the same intellectual and political authority as scientific knowledge, but they were still a significant component of popular culture, and even elite culture. For instance, wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor was praised as “an enthusiastic devotee of the Goddess of Electricity” (quoted in Marvin, 39). The language surrounding technology and science, even as it actively discredited and devalued tradition and belief, still utilized spiritual metaphors and a vocabulary of belief and faith, alongside a separate scientific language. Professional experts, most notably electricians, often criticized writers of popular science publications (directed towards those without special training) for their lack of “obedient submission to expert authority” (Marvin, 44). These experts were anxious to guard their concentrated power from dispersal among the public, and so they actively excluded non-experts through narratives: “electrical journals delighted in anecdotes about how technical knowledge was misunderstood and misapplied by amateurs, charlatans, and even students” (Marvin, 47). While these narratives reinforced the power structure based on scientific knowledge, they could not avoid being subsumed into a discourse that attributes magical power to the language of technology. Professional experts had to fight so hard to differentiate themselves from popular science fiction because scientific discourse is inevitably haunted by that which it excludes: folklore, superstition, belief, spiritualism, the ghosts of the powerless, the obsolete, the dead.
Marvin, Carolyn. “Inventing the Expert: Technological Literacy as Social Currency.” When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electrical Communication in the Late 19th Century. New York: OUP, 1998.
Motz, Marilyn. “The Practice of Belief.” Journal of American Folklore, 111 (1998): 339 – 355.