Organicism and Psychical Research: Where Mushrooms and Mediums Meet
As much as parapsychologists have employed physics and technological metaphors to understand psychical phenomena (spiritual telegraph, waves, forces, and so on), other researchers have also drawn from organismic and biological models in their efforts to ‘matter the paranormal’ through the language of science. Historical examples include Franz Anton Mesmer’s (1784-1814) notion of ‘animal magnetism’ as a subtle fluid that flows through and connects all lifeforms, and which may be manipulated for all manner of therapeutic purposes. Biologist and psychical researcher Hans Driesch (1867-1941) offered a vitalist interpretation of parapsychological phenomena, and Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘New Science of Life’ (Sheldrake, 2009) is a more recent example of this trend. Even the term ‘ectoplasm’ – referring to a mysterious semi-physical substance exuded from the bodies of entranced mediums in Victorian séances – is derived from cellular biology and the research of the physiologist Charles Richet (1850-1935). Both organicist and mechanist interpretations of psychical phenomena are expressions of the same impulse to fit the paranormal into the established frameworks of the hard sciences. Drawing on examples from my own fieldwork with a mediumship development circle in Bristol, this presentation makes the case that an organismic framework might shed new light on the kind of spirit communication that takes place in mediumship development circles, where the paranormal is ‘mattered’ through the biology of the physical body.