Advertisement

Materialising the Medium: Ectoplasm and the Quest for Supra-Normal Biology in Fin-de-Siècle Science and Art

  • Robert Michael Brain

Abstract

In the 1890s, French physiologist Charles Richet, who had recently joined a growing cohort of European scientists interested in spiritualism and psychic phenomena, described a process in which the spirit medium Eusepia Palladino externalised a hidden immaterial substance, thought to be either part of her subconscious or a discarnate spirit, in material form.1 He proposed that such phenomena of ‘materialization’ observed in spiritualist séances — evanescent slime oozing from the medium — should be understood as ‘ectoplasm’. ‘The word “ectoplasm,” which I invented for the experiments with Eusapia, seems entirely justified’, Richet explained, observing that it is a kind of gelatinous protoplasm, formless at first, that exudes from the body of the medium, and takes form later. ‘In the early stages there are always white veils and milky patches and the faces, fingers, and drawings are formed little by little in the midst of this kind of gelatinous paste that resembles moist and sticky muslin.’ He added that materialisations are ectoplasm, ‘sarcoidic extensions emanating from the body of a medium, precisely as a pseudopod from an amoeboid cell’.2 The stuff was slippery, but the term stuck: ectoplasm (with occasional variations, like ‘teleplasm’) became a key element of spiritualism and a topic of scientific investigation. By the early 1920s there were enough studies by leading scientists — Richet, Theodor Flournoy, Cesare Lombroso, Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing, Oliver Lodge, Hans Driesch, and others — that psychical researcher Gustave Geley could observe in 1921 that ‘psychophysiology … has decided to reckon with ectoplasm and to accommodate it’.3

Keywords

Photographic Plate Vital Fluid Psychic Phenomenon Bizarre Imagery Psychical Phenomenon 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

References

  1. Allen, Grant, Physiological Aesthetics (London: Henry King & Co., 1877).Google Scholar
  2. Azoulay, L., ‘Psychologie histologique et texture du système nerveux’, L’année psychologique 2 (1895): 255–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baraduc, Hippolyte, l’Âme humaine, ses mouvements, ses lumières et l’iconographie de l’invisible fluidique (Paris: Carré, 1896).Google Scholar
  4. —, La force courbe, photographies des vibrations de l’éther (Paris: P. Ollendorff, 1897).Google Scholar
  5. —, Les vibrations de la vitalité humaine: méthode biométrique appliquée aux sensitifs (Paris: J.-B. Baillière et fils, 1904).Google Scholar
  6. Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).Google Scholar
  7. Binet, Alfred, ‘Revue Générale sur l’amoeboïsme du système nerveux’, L’année psychologique 4(1) (1897): 438–49.Google Scholar
  8. Bisson, Juliette-Alexandre, Le Médiumnisme et la Sorbonne (Paris: Alcan, 1923).Google Scholar
  9. —, Les Phénomènes dits de matérialisation, etude expérimentale (Paris: F. Alcan, 1914).Google Scholar
  10. Black, Sandra E., ‘Pseudopods and Synapses: The Amoeboid Theories of Neuronal Mobility and the Early Formation of the Synapse Concept, 1894–1900’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 55(1) (1981): 34–58.Google Scholar
  11. Blondel, Christine, ‘Eusapia Palladino: la méthode expérimentale et la “diva des savants”’, in Des Savants face à l’occulte, 1870–1940, edited by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Christine Blondel (Paris: Découverte, 2002), pp. 143–72.Google Scholar
  12. Boccioni, Umberto, Dynamisme plastique: peinture et sculpture futuriste, edited by Giovanni Lista (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1975).Google Scholar
  13. Bourget, Paul, Au service de l’ordre (Paris: Plon, 1929).Google Scholar
  14. Brain, Robert, Physiological Aesthetics: Expermentalizing Life and Art in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, forthcoming).Google Scholar
  15. —, ‘Protoplasmania: Huxley, Haeckel, and the Vibratory Organism in Late Nineteenth-Century Science and Art’, in The Art of Evolution: Darwin, Darwinism, and Visual Culture, edited by Fae Brauer and Barbara Larson (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2009), pp. 92–123.Google Scholar
  16. —, ‘The Pulse of Modernism: Experimental Physiology and Aesthetic Avant-Gardes circa 1900’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 39 (2008): 393–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Chéroux, Clément, ‘Photographs of Fluids: An Alphabet of Invisible Rays’, in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, edited by C. Chéroux, A. Fischer, P. Apraxine, D. Canguilhem, and S. Schmit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 114–25.Google Scholar
  18. Churchill, Frederick B., ‘From Machine-Theory to Entelechy: Two Studies in Developmental Teleology’, Journal of History of Biology 2 (1969): 165–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Crookes, William, ‘Spiritualism Viewed by the Light of Modern Science’, Quarterly Journal of Science 7 (1870): 316–21.Google Scholar
  20. Deyber, R., l’État actuel de la question d’amoeboïsme (Paris: Steinhal, 1897).Google Scholar
  21. Doyle, Arthur Conan, A History of Spiritualism (Middlesex: Echo Library, 2006).Google Scholar
  22. Driesch, Hans, Analytische Theorie der organischen Entwicklung (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1894).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Driesch, Driesch, ‘Entwicklungsmechanische Studien’, Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 53 (1891): pp. 160–78.Google Scholar
  24. —, Lebenserrinerungen. Aufzeichnungen eines Forschers und Denkers in Enscheidender Zeit (Munich: Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, 1951).Google Scholar
  25. —, ‘Presidential Address: Psychical Research and Established Science’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 36 (1926): 171–86.Google Scholar
  26. —, Psychical Research: The Science of the Super-Normal, translated by Theodore Besterman (London: G. Bell, 1933).Google Scholar
  27. Geley, Gustave, L’Ectoplasmie et la clairvoyance: Observations et experiences personnelles (Paris: Libraire Félix Alcan, 1924).Google Scholar
  28. —, La Physiologie dite supra-normale et les phénomènes d’idéoplastie (Paris: Institut général psychologique, 1918).Google Scholar
  29. Gunning, Tom, ‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations’, in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, edited by Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 42–71).Google Scholar
  30. Harrington, Anne, ‘Hysteria, Hypnosis, and the Lure of the Invisible: The Rise of Neo-Mesmerism in Fin-de-Siècle French Psychiatry’, in The Anatomy of Madness, edited by W.F. Bynum, R. Porter, M. Shepard (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 226–46.Google Scholar
  31. Henderson, Linda Dalrymple, ‘Vibratory Modernism: Boccioni, Kupka, and the Ether of Space’, in From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature, edited by Bruce Clarke and Linda Dalrymple Henderson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 126–49.Google Scholar
  32. —, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  33. Hessenbruch, Arne, ‘Science as Public Sphere: X-Rays Between Spiritualism and Physics’, in Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit in Berlin, 1870–1930, edited by Constantin Goschlar (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2000), pp. 89–126.Google Scholar
  34. Heuzé, Paul, Où en est la métapsychique (Paris: Gautier-Villars et Cie, 1925).Google Scholar
  35. Huxley, Thomas Henry, ‘The Physical Basis of Life’, Fortnightly Review 5 (1869): 129–55.Google Scholar
  36. Jastrow, Joseph, ‘Ectoplasm, Myth or Key to the Unknown?’, New York Times, 30 July 1922: 88–9.Google Scholar
  37. Kaplan, Louis, The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).Google Scholar
  38. Lachapelle, Sophie, Investigating the Supernatural: From Spiritism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France, 1853–1931 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).Google Scholar
  39. Landecker, Hannah, Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Le Maléfan, Pascal, ‘Richet chasseur de fantômes: l’épisode de la villa Carmen’, in Des Savants face à l’occulte, 1870–1940, edited by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Christine Blondel (Paris: Découverte, 2002), pp. 173–200.Google Scholar
  41. Loison, Laurent, Qu’est-ce que le néolamarckisme? Les Biologistes français et la question de l’evolution des espéces (Paris: Vuibert, 2010), pp. 72–4.Google Scholar
  42. Marinetti, F.T., Critical Writings, edited by Günter Berghaus, translated by Doug Thompson (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2006).Google Scholar
  43. Noakes, Richard, ‘Ethers, Religion, and Politics in Late Victorian Physics’, History of Science 43 (2005): 415–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. —, ‘Instruments to Lay Hold of Spirits: Technologizing the Bodies of Victorian Spiritualism’, in Bodies/Machines, edited by Iwan Morus (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002), pp. 125–63.Google Scholar
  45. Noakes, Richard, ‘The “World of the Infinitely Little”: Connecting Physical and Psychical Realities circa 1900’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 39 (2008): 323–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Nordmann, Charles, ‘Les Grands Médiums à ectoplasme’, La Revue des deux mondes, 15 October 1922: 930–41.Google Scholar
  47. Ochorowicz, Julian, Mental suggestion, by Dr. J. Ochorowicz … with a preface by Charles Richet, translated by J. Fitzgerald (New York, Humboldt Publishing Co, 1891).Google Scholar
  48. Pupil, Charles, Le Neurone et les hypothèses histologique de son mode de fonctionnnement. Théorie histologique du sommeil (Paris: Steinhall, 1896).Google Scholar
  49. Raia, Courtenay Grean, ‘From Ether Theory to Ether Theology: Oliver Lodge and the Physics of Immortality’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 43(1) (2007): 19–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ramaligan, Chitra, ‘A Science of Appearances: Vision, Visualization, and Experimental Physics in Victorian England’ (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2009).Google Scholar
  51. Richet, Charles, Traité de métapsychique (Paris: Alcan, 1922).Google Scholar
  52. —, Les Phénomènes dits de matérialisation (Paris: Annales des Sciences Psychiques, 1906).Google Scholar
  53. —, Thirty Years of Psychical Research: Being a Treatise on Metaphysics, translated by Stanley De Brath (New York: Macmillan, 1923).Google Scholar
  54. Rochas, Albert de, L’extériorisation de la sensibilité. Étude expérimentale et Historique (Paris: Chamuel, 1895).Google Scholar
  55. —, Les Sentiments, la musique, et le geste (Grenoble: Librairie Dauphinoise, 1900).Google Scholar
  56. Schaffer, Simon, ‘Transport Phenomena: Space and Visibility in Victorian Physics’, Early Popular Visual Culture 10(1) (2012): 71–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Schoonover, Karl, ‘Ectoplasms, Evanescence, and Photography’, Art Journal 62(3) (2003): 30–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Schrenck-Notzing, Albert Freiherr von, Grundfragen der Parapsychologie, edited by Gerda Walther (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1962).Google Scholar
  59. —, Materialisationsphänomene: Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der mediumistischen Teleplastie (Munich: Ernst Reinhardt, 1914).Google Scholar
  60. Sherrington, Charles Scott, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1906).Google Scholar
  61. Stefanowska, Micheline, ‘Les appendices terminaux de dendrites cérébraux et leurs différents états physiologiques’, Travaux de la laboratoire de l’Institut Solvay (Bruxelles, 1897): 1–58.Google Scholar
  62. Stewart, Balfour, and Peter Guthrie Tait, The Unseen Universe or Physical Speculation on a Future State (New York: Macmillan, 1875).Google Scholar
  63. Stirling, James Hutchison, As Regards Protoplasm (London: Longmans & Green, 1872).Google Scholar
  64. Trower, Shelley, Senses of Vibration: A History of the Pleasure and Pain of Sound (New York and London: Continuum, 2012).Google Scholar
  65. Tucker, Jennifer, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).Google Scholar
  66. Verworn, Max, Allgemeine Physiologie. Ein Grundriss der Lehre vom Leben (Jena: G. Fischer, 1897).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Wilder, Kelley, Photography and Science (London: Reaktion Books, 2009).Google Scholar
  68. Wolffram, Heather, The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870–1939 (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert Michael Brain 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Michael Brain

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations