Ghosts of Futures Past

Paul Harvey

Spiritualism continues to haunt and invigorate American religious history and studies. Despite excellent works by Anne Braude, Brett Carroll, and several others, there's much more yet to say about the far-reaching implications of the practice in the nineteenth century and beyond. Here's a new, innovative, dense and difficult, but rewarding new work for your interest (especially for you American studies types): Molly McGarry, Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (University of California Press).

From the book's description:

Ghosts of Futures Past guides readers through the uncanny world of nineteenth-century American spiritualism. More than an occult parlor game, this was a new religion, which channeled the voices of the dead, linked present with past, and conjured new worldly and otherworldly futures. Tracing the persistence of magic in an emergent culture of secularism, Molly McGarry brings a once marginalized practice to the center of American cultural history. Spiritualism provided an alchemical combination of science and magic that called into question the very categories of male and female, material and immaterial, self and other, living and dead. Dissolving the boundaries between them opened Spiritualist practitioners to other voices and, in turn, allowed them to imagine new social worlds and forge diverse political affinities.

Nineteenth-century Spiritualists were the “other within,” McGarry suggests, in this cultural studies reading of Spiritualism: the widely popular practice of conjuring up spirits and ancestors of the past, often through the “mediumship” of younger women who could embody the voices of the disembodied. Mostly white and middle-class Americans, Spiritualists “claimed mysticism for white America, creating a spiritual practice out of a communion with difference.” They were harbingers of America’s first “New Age,” and practitioners of what Catherine Albanese has termed the tradition of “metaphysical religion.” Spiritualists identified with the other – men with women, whites with Indians, straights with “queers”; in this way, Spiritualists practiced transgressive politics, spiritualities, and sexualities, earning them the ire of Anthony Comstock and all those who searched for obscenity in every piece of mail.

This is a difficult but effective work; the combination of both is suggested by the chapter titles, which puzzle but tantalize:

1. Mourning, Media, and the Cultural Politics of Conjuring the Dead
2. Indian Guides: Haunted Subjects and the Politics of Vanishing
3. Spectral Sexualities: Free Love, Moral Panic, and the Making of U.S. Obscenity Law
4. Mediomania: The Spirit of Science in a Culture of Belief and Doubt
5. Secular Spirits: A Queer Genealogy of Untimely Sexualities

McGarry is at her best in the last chapter, in which she takes on reigning academic theories of secularity and new sexual categories (including that of the “homosexual”), and explores the relationship of religion and sexuality. Her subjects used “spiritual theories of embodiment and forms of memorialization” to find “transfigurative affiliation, consolation, and connection.”


John G. Turner said…
Thanks, Paul. I'm exited to read about the book, as Albanese and Leigh Schmidt have gotten me interested in the fascinating subject.

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