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.