Spectral Bodies of Evidence: The Body as Medium in American Spiritualism
Erin D. Yerby
This dissertation is an ethnography of the body as medium in the North American Spiritualist tradition. With its origins in the “burned-over district” of upstate New York, Spiritualism is a homegrown religious movement rooted in the radical Protestant milieu of “Great Awakenings,” which evolved into an international religious movement with a distinctly secular bent. Spiritualists, unlike Pentecostals and Evangelicals, de-emphasize faith or belief and understand the spirits as present to the “natural” senses and thus demonstrable as “evidences, ” complicating the dialectics of faith and skepticism. Situated within North American “metaphysical” traditions, 19th century and contemporary Spiritualism foregrounds the centrality of mediumship and thus the spirit medium’s sensorium, through its practices of spirit communication. The medium is a figure of mediation, one who communicates the spectral presence of the dead—or as the Spiritualists’ say, “There are no dead!”—to the living.
This dissertation looks at how this emphasis on spiritual evidences draws out modern antinomies between secular and religious experience, and the certainty and doubt engendered by the medium’s attention to ephemeral affects, sensations and images that define spirit presence. As such, it takes as its point of departure the Spiritualist medium’s discernment of the spirit world as a practice of making the body a media, or instrument, for the visual, auditory, and haptic sensation of the spirits of the dead. Based upon over three years of ethnographic fieldwork and archival research, this anthropological study was conducted in Spiritualist Churches, home circles, training courses, and in mediumship centers in New York City, upstate New York, New Jersey and London, including many summers spent in the long-standing Spiritualist camp of Lily Dale, in northwestern New York State.
As this dissertation proposes, a focus on bodily mediation allows us to think the body not only as a specific kind of media in the common technological sense, but as a sensory instrument for mediation in the originary ontological sense, as religious mediation across thresholds—between people and spirits, the living and the dead, God and creation, human and nonhuman forces. This work argues that Spiritualism places secular and religious notions of experience within an immanent frame, making visible the problem of a body affected—in this case, by “clouds” of spirits—and, more fundamentally, the problem of the body’s doubleness: as if always already shadowed by its own spectrality.
Mediumship, it argues, addresses itself to a kind of evidence, where what is sought is a kind of experience: an experience in which the spirits become discernible, and are figured into a verifiable state to become evidence for others.
By making the body the central instrument for mediating invisible forces of spirit, history, and affect, North American Spiritualism—it proposes—opens onto a set of problems connecting image, settlement and experience, laced together as a problem of the body. If mediumship concerns the fact of sensation, the fact of being-affected, affects are the foreground, not the background, against which everything else takes place: to speak of the experience of mediumship is to speak of attunements to overlooked images and affects and the way these are concretized into more enduring spirit figures. It is to this cloudy realm of fugitive images and affections that this work tries to attend.
Specifically, and in light of Spiritualisms’ focus upon spiritual experience as the unmediated ground of divine apprehension, this dissertation situates Spiritualism within a broader stream of Protestant iconoclasm, albeit at the margins, as a syncretic “metaphysical” movement of diverse spiritual and occult influences. This work suggests affinities between the Spiritualist medium’s mediation of spirit images, and a Puritan iconoclasm at the foundation of North American settler spirituality—where the displaced body of the settler becomes the central placeholder of religious experience and sacred image, the body itself figured as the sacred image or icon of God. Drawing upon these inheritances, Spiritualism is here situated within a spiritual geography of settlement. In particular, this concerns a geography connecting 19th century and present-day practices of spirit communication with spectral “Indians” and North American settlement’s iconoclastic foundations: a history of violence haunted by spectralized others. This dissertation would be of interest to readers of religious/mystical experience, philosophy of religion, media theory, affect theory, settler colonialism, Native American studies, gender studies, and ethnographic writing.