Séan-tific Fem­i­nin­ity

Geist - - Findings - BETH A. ROBERT­SON

From Sci­ence of the Seance: Transna­tional Net­works and Gen­dered Bod­ies in the Study of Psy­chic Phe­nom­ena, 1918–40. Pub­lished by UBC Press in 2016. Robert­son is a his­to­rian of gen­der, sci­ence, medicine and tech­nol­ogy who teaches in the His­tory Depart­ment at Car­leton Uni­ver­sity. She lives in Ot­tawa.

De­spite enor­mous gains by fem­i­nists in open­ing up sci­en­tific and med­i­cal pro­fes­sions to women from the late nine­teenth cen­tury on­ward, fem­i­nin­ity con­tin­ued to be as­so­ci­ated with in­tel­lec­tual in­ep­ti­tude. Women, still de­fined largely by their bod­ies rather than by their minds, were as­sumed to be in­ca­pable of the ra­tio­nal­ism nec­es­sary for sci­en­tific pur­suits.

In at­tempt­ing to con­struct and por­tray psy­chi­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions as a sci­ence, re­searchers en­acted bound­ary-mak­ing prac­tices that fell along gen­dered lines. The sci­en­tific self en­vi­sioned as ex­plic­itly male be­came the stan­dard of a cred­i­ble in­ves­ti­ga­tor. Nev­er­the­less, numer­ous women at­tempted to con­duct psy­chi­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions in ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion to the mas­cu­line im­age of the sci­en­tific iden­tity. Yet th­ese women did so only within cer­tain bounds and com­monly evoked not their own au­thor­ity to ob­serve and col­lect re­li­able data but the ex­per­tise of sci­en­tific men.

Lillian Hamil­ton, T. Glen Hamil­ton’s wife, went to great lengths to sup­port her hus­band’s re­search and be­came in­stru­men­tal in com­pelling him to con­tinue his in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the para­nor­mal. It was she who be­gan to hold sit­tings with the medium El­iz­a­beth Poole—the woman who would act as the main medium for the Win­nipeg ex­per­i­ments for sev­eral years fol­low­ing. Although T. Glen had be­gun ex­per­i­ments with

telepa­thy in 1918, he had de­cided to give it up, partly due to pro­fes­sional com­mit­ments but also for fear that psy­chi­cal re­search may be “a dan­ger­ous busi­ness” that he would be best to avoid. Thus, even when prod­ded, he re­sisted dab­bling in such prac­tices for a time. Lillian, in con­trast, was not to be dis­suaded once her in­ter­est was “aroused in the pos­si­bil­i­ties” of such ex­per­i­ments.

Lillian Hamil­ton con­tin­ued hold­ing sit­tings, de­ter­mined to dis­cover some­thing of value, and in July 1921 her ex­pec­ta­tions were met. At this time, she ob­served that when Poole placed her hands on the seance ta­ble, it be­gan to tilt on two legs, the other side lev­i­tat­ing and of­fer­ing due re­sis­tance against ef­forts to push it down. “What was hold­ing it in place?” Lillian Hamil­ton asked rhetor­i­cally. “Hav­ing re­cently read Dr. Craw­ford’s ac­count of the tele­ki­netic phe­nom­ena which he had ob­tained with Miss Go­ligher in Belfast, I jumped to the con­clu­sion that in El­iz­a­beth we had per­haps dis­cov­ered a medium with po­ten­tial of the same type.” Lillian Hamil­ton recorded this sig­nif­i­cant seance on July 24, 1921, in short stac­cato phrases rem­i­nis­cent of a sci­en­tific re­port: “Mrs. Poole and Lillian H. present. They place their hands on the ta­ble. In a few moments the ‘power’ is ex­ceed­ingly strong—the ta­ble tilts on two legs ... L.H. tried to de­press it back to the floor but found the ta­ble seemed to be rest­ing on a sort of ‘air cush­ion.’”

De­spite the promis­ing ex­per­i­ment, Lillian Hamil­ton met with dif­fi­cul­ties when she at­tempted to pur­sue and present th­ese psy­chi­cal ex­per­i­ments to oth­ers. Her strug­gles with be­ing rec­og­nized as a sci­en­tific ex­per­i­menter came first of all from her hus­band. T. Glen Hamil­ton did not ini­tially be­lieve the ac­count of his wife or the medium. Draw­ing at­ten­tion to his wife’s body, which he as­sumed could eas­ily lead her fem­i­nine mind astray, he sug­gested that “prob­a­bly the ‘force’ was due to un­con­scious mus­cu­lar ac­tiv­ity.” He re­mained un­con­vinced un­til he ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand such ex­tra­or­di­nary pow­ers. On July 31, 1921, T. Glen re­lented to Lillian’s urg­ings, and they held a seance in which ta­ble tilt­ing again oc­curred. T. Glen was un­able to push the ta­ble back down in place due to the in­cred­i­ble force. Per­haps un­sur­pris­ing, the recorder of the seance, Lillian, re­ported that she “was very much amused to hear TGH ‘grunt­ing’ ... as he strug­gled with the ta­ble to push it down.”

After this ex­per­i­ment, T. Glen Hamil­ton fi­nally viewed Poole’s medi­u­mistic gifts as po­ten­tially valu­able. Tellingly, only once he him­self had ex­pe­ri­enced the phe­nom­e­non was he “con­vinced for the first time of the re­al­ity of psy­chic force,” which he thus deemed wor­thy of his sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tion. A drive to “know the facts of psy­chi­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion for one’s self ” un­doubt­edly re­flected the in­di­vid­u­al­ist ideals of his in­ter­war con­text. Yet it also made Lillian Hamil­ton merely in­ci­den­tal to his own in­ter­ests in the para­nor­mal.

Fem­i­nist thinker and physi­cist Eve­lyn Fox Keller iden­ti­fies a pow­er­ful mythol­ogy em­bed­ded within the mod­ern sci­en­tific en­ter­prise that has cast women as “the guar­an­tors and pro­tec­tors of the per­sonal, the emo­tional, the par­tic­u­lar.”

Mean­while, “sci­ence—the prov­ince par ex­cel­lence of the im­per­sonal, the ra­tio­nal and the gen­eral—has been the pre­serve of men.” In the process of adopt­ing a sci­en­tific frame­work through which to in­ves­ti­gate the para­nor­mal, psy­chi­cal re­searchers es­poused a sim­i­larly gen­dered divi­sion of knowl­edge. T. Glen Hamil­ton did value the work of his wife and other fe­male par­tic­i­pants in his psy­chi­cal ex­per­i­ments and, by all ap­pear­ances, en­joyed con­vers­ing with women and com­mu­ni­cat­ing to them the meth­ods of his re­search and re­sults. Yet de­spite his favourable opin­ion of women, he did not align them with crit­i­cal rea­son­ing and

ex­per­i­men­tal meth­ods. He in­sisted, rather, that women’s “psy­chol­ogy is dif­fer­ent” from that of men. Ac­cord­ing to Hamil­ton, women, un­like men, were in­nately trust­ing, emo­tional, un­crit­i­cal, and “more dis­posed to ac­cept with less de­mand for fun­da­men­tal de­tail.”

Women, in some in­stances, seemed to adopt this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. As much as Lillian Hamil­ton ar­tic­u­lated a sin­cere ded­i­ca­tion to the sci­en­tific method, she also con­veyed a much more sub­jec­tive side to the in­ves­ti­ga­tions than did her hus­band. Whereas T. Glen Hamil­ton in­sisted upon his ob­jec­tiv­ity and un­sen­ti­men­tal ap­proach, Lillian freely ad­mit­ted that

the psy­chi­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions of both her­self and her hus­band had led her to the con­vic­tion that “the prob­lem was set­tled: re­li­gious faith in sur­vival no longer walked alone.” Ex­press­ing her de­sire for faith along­side her sci­en­tific per­sua­sions, she em­braced the close links be­tween women and spir­i­tu­al­ity that sev­eral his­to­ri­ans have iden­ti­fied. Ac­cord­ing to Lillian, her spir­i­tual be­lief “went hand in hand with ev­i­dence of a sci­en­tific na­ture.” This rev­e­la­tion com­forted Lillian, who im­me­di­ately viewed it in light of the loss of her young son Arthur only a few years be­fore: “A new world had opened up—a world of be­lief that helped me part with Arthur with­out

tears and with an in­ner joy that one of my beloved at least was safely over and ready for other-world evo­lu­tion­ary en­deav­ours.” The con­nec­tion she drew be­tween th­ese in­ves­ti­ga­tions and her dead son was far from un­founded, as ap­par­ently the ghost of their child made fre­quent ap­pear­ances in Poole’s vi­sions, through which she de­scribed him “as in­creas­ing in age and stature.”

Lillian Hamil­ton ad­hered to sci­en­tific em­piri­cism much like her hus­band, but she did not equate her ded­i­ca­tion to em­piri­cism with an in­abil­ity to ex­press grief and hope. T. Glen Hamil­ton did not ad­mit to such emo­tion, at least in pub­lic, quite pos­si­bly out of fear that he would lose le­git­i­macy as an ap­pro­pri­ately manly and ra­tio­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tor. Seen in this light, the ideal of mas­cu­line sci­en­tific au­thor­ity con­strained him as well as Lillian. T. Glen may have felt pro­hib­ited from com­mu­ni­cat­ing his grief over the loss of his son or the hope that his ex­per­i­ments pro­vided. Lillian’s man­ner of forg­ing her iden­tity and per­spec­tive pro­vided a de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity and dy­namism that her hus­band could not af­ford. Nev­er­the­less, it also safely placed her within the con­fines of ideal do­mes­tic­ity, moth­er­hood, and re­spectable, mid­dle­class fem­i­nin­ity.

Whereas T. Glen Hamil­ton ex­pe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant recog­ni­tion as a sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Lillian Hamil­ton found her­self po­si­tioned as ir­re­vo­ca­bly tied to sup­posed qual­i­ties of wom­an­hood, such as im­pres­sion­abil­ity, ir­ra­tional­ity, and emo­tion­al­ism. She con­se­quently re­mained un­able to fully as­sume the po­si­tion of a cred­i­ble in­ves­ti­ga­tor in her own right, de­spite her in­valu­able ser­vice as a re­searcher, recorder, wit­ness, and ex­per­i­menter in the Win­nipeg seances. Un­like her hus­band, Lillian re­mained de­fined by her “nat­u­rally sub­jec­tive” knowl­edge and em­bod­i­ment. Much as fem­i­nist the­o­rist Lor­raine Code ar­gues, she could there­fore never at­tain the sta­tus of “a knower in the fullest sense of the term.”

Lillian con­tin­ued to ex­per­i­ment for years after the death of her hus­band. Yet, even when she acted in­de­pen­dently, her in­ves­ti­ga­tions never re­ceived the recog­ni­tion that his ex­per­i­ments had. Her role, at best, par­al­leled what Steven Shapin refers to as an “in­vis­i­ble tech­ni­cian”—an es­sen­tial yet vir­tu­ally un­rec­og­nized agent in the con­text of the psy­chi­cal lab­o­ra­tory. as­tron­omy, games of chance, and—his great­est in­ven­tion of all—writ­ing. Thamus, king of the Egyp­tians, ad­mired all of th­ese gifts ex­cept writ­ing, which he re­fused to teach to his sub­jects, claim­ing that “if men learn this, it will im­plant for­get­ful­ness in their souls; they will cease to ex­er­cise mem­ory be­cause they rely on that which is writ­ten, call­ing things to re­mem­brance no longer from within them­selves, but by means of ex­ter­nal marks. What you have dis­cov­ered is a recipe not for mem­ory, but for re­minder.”

Socrates tells the story to ex­plain why he re­fuses to “write” his thoughts “in wa­ter” with pen and ink, “sow­ing words which can nei­ther speak for them­selves nor teach the truth ad­e­quately to oth­ers.”

Ac­cord­ing to Plato, Socrates called writ­ing “in-hu­man.” In striv­ing to es­tab­lish out­side the mind that which can truly live only in­side the mind, writ­ing trans­forms thought into ob­ject, no longer of flesh and blood. Read­ing, in his view, was just as de­spi­ca­ble. Be­cause read­ers would be able to “re­ceive a quan­tity of in­for­ma­tion with­out proper in­struc­tion,” they would “be thought very knowl­edge­able when they are for the most part quite ig­no­rant.”

Al­most 2,000 years later, the ad­vent of the printed book pro­voked the same re­sponse. The hu­man­ist Ital­ian edi­tor Hieron­imo Squar­ci­afico was at first en­thu­si­as­tic about books. But in 1477, less than a decade after Guten­berg died, Squar­ci­afico wrote an imag­ined dis­course be­tween the spir­its of great authors pass­ing their time in the Elysian Fields. Some authors lauded the new print­ing press, but oth­ers com­plained that “print­ing had fallen into the hands of un­let­tered men who cor­rupted al­most every­thing.” Yet even the naysay­ers felt they had to ac­cept Guten­berg’s in­ven­tion:

“Their works would per­ish if they were not printed, since this art com­pels all writ­ers to give way to it.”

This sounds a lot like what writ­ers to­day say about dig­i­tal books, and self-pub­lish­ing, too. They are the mod­ern in­car­na­tions of that Floren­tine book­seller, Ves­pasiano da Bis­ticci, who said that a me­chan­i­cally printed book should be “ashamed” to be set be­side a hand-copied man­u­script.

Squar­ci­afico has be­come fa­mous for his apho­rism, “Abun­dance of books makes men less stu­dious; it de­stroys mem­ory and en­fee­bles the mind by re­liev­ing it of too much work.” It is well to re­mem­ber that he wrote this at a time when books were still enor­mous, chained to lecterns, long be­fore Manu­tius re­leased them to ev­ery­one’s hands with his para forma.

The rot­ting im­pact of read­ing on the mind wasn’t the only crit­i­cism lev­elled against books. In­ex­pen­sive and eas­ily avail­able, books would de­value the work of schol­ars and un­der­mine re­li­gious au­thor­ity, spread­ing sedi­tion and de­bauch­ery. And per­haps th­ese crit­ics were right. Luther’s Nine­ty­five Th­e­ses would not have spread so far and wide with­out a print­ing press to pub­lish his posters, and it’s un­likely the En­light­en­ment would have had the im­pact it did with­out the rise in lit­er­acy that the print­ing press made pos­si­ble.

But is it true that writ­ing and read­ing books have stolen our me­mories, made us stupid?

That ar­gu­ment was lev­elled against cal­cu­la­tors (a small hand­held de­vice that could add, sub­tract, mul­ti­ply, and di­vide at the press of a but­ton). Keep them out of schools! our par­ents said. Children will lose the abil­ity to add up long col­umns of numbers in their heads! Which they prob­a­bly did, since that skill quickly be­came re­dun­dant in the face of a ma­chine with the abil­ity to cal­cu­late com­pli­cated equa­tions in sec­onds.

With the In­ter­net fully upon us, the same old crit­i­cisms are be­ing voiced once again. “Is Google Mak­ing Us Stupid?” Ni­cholas Carr asked in the At­lantic. “Over the past few years I’ve had an un­com­fort­able sense that some­one, or some­thing, has been tin­ker­ing with my brain, remap­ping the neu­ral cir­cuitry, re­pro­gram­ming the mem­ory. My mind isn’t go­ing—so far as I can tell—but it’s chang­ing. I’m not think­ing the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m read­ing.”

I know ex­actly what he means. I feel it, too. Even writ­ing th­ese short vi­gnettes, I in­ter­rupt my­self a dozen times to check facts, scan in­com­ing email, con­firm my bank bal­ance. My brain func­tions seem less lin­ear, more scat­tered. More nim­ble, too, if I’m hon­est. Less able to fo­cus, per­haps, but bet­ter able to make con­nec­tions. In his sem­i­nal folk­lore text, The Singer of Tales, Al­bert Lord sug­gests that the act of writ­ing drives us to a lin­ear way of think­ing, that oral mem­ory is pat­terned dif­fer­ently than writ­ten mem­ory. Per­haps com­put­ers are tak­ing us back to a dif­fer­ent—not nec­es­sar­ily in­fe­rior—spa­tial form of mem­ory.

For at least five years, blog­gers have been mon­i­tor­ing the phe­nom­e­non. “I used to be a vo­ra­cious reader. What hap­pened?” one moans. “I can’t read War and Peace any­more,” an­other ad­mits. “I’ve lost the abil­ity to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four para­graphs is too much to ab­sorb. I skim it.” “What if I do all my read­ing on the Web not so much be­cause the way I read has changed, but be­cause the way I THINK has changed?”

It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing thought. Clearly, as a species, we aren’t crazy about change. We re­sist it at the very mo­ment we em­brace it. And we are right. There are mon­sters as well as ghosts in the ma­chine. We know this from ex­pe­ri­ence (even if we don’t re­mem­ber it). Ni­cholas Carr cites the ex­am­ple of the me­chan­i­cal clock, which came into com­mon use about a hun­dred years be­fore the print­ing press. In his book Tech­nics and Civ­i­liza­tion, the his­to­rian and cul­tural critic Lewis Mum­ford de­scribes how the clock “dis­as­so­ci­ated time from hu­man events” and “helped cre­ate the be­lief in an in­de­pen­dent world of math­e­mat­i­cally mea­sur­able se­quences.” The sci­en­tific mind with its mea­sur­able truths evolved in part be­cause of the me­chan­i­cal clock. A sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fit, to be sure, but we lost some­thing, too. We stopped pay­ing close at­ten­tion to our bod­ies and to the phys­i­cal world around us. We eat at noon even when we aren’t hun­gry. We go to sleep at ten p.m. whether the sum­mer sun is still shin­ing in our north­ern sky or we are pulling up the blan­kets un­der a dark win­ter moon.

Read­ing on­screen may in­deed be turn­ing us into in­for­ma­tional mag­pies, and writ­ing prob­a­bly did weaken the part of our minds in which long po­ems and speeches were stored and shared orally with friends and fam­ily. My nos­tal­gic self yearns for what I can only imag­ine: a hud­dle of loved ones, all eyes fixed on the sto­ry­teller, know­ing as I lis­ten that the story this time won’t be the same as when I last heard it, or the next time, ei­ther, ev­ery mo­ment fresh, unique, pure in it­self.

Socrates and Squar­ci­afico knew some­thing in their bones that we no longer be­lieve. Or at least, it is a truth that we fight against: life is ephemeral, it is dif­fer­ent one mil­lisec­ond to the next. No amount of press­ing words onto pa­per or dig­i­tiz­ing them on a screen will ever stop that flow.

From Hostage by Guy Delisle, which chron­i­cles the kid­nap­ping of Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders ad­min­is­tra­tor Christophe An­dré in 1997. Forth­com­ing from Drawn & Quar­terly in May 2017. Delisle is the au­thor of sev­eral award-win­ning books, in­clud­ing Jerusalem: Chron­i­cles from the Holy City, which won the Prize for Best Al­bum at the An­goulême In­ter­na­tional Comics Fes­ti­val. He lives in France.

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