To archaeologists and anthropologists ‘materialisation’ is the embedding of an abstract meaning into a solid, physical thing (see DeMarrais et al 1996). A wedding ring might be seen as the materialisation of romantic sentiment or legal binding. A gift materialises a social relationship of obligation between people. Thinking about materialisation questions the artifice that sets mind against matter. But materialisation isn’t just for philosophical introspection. It arises from a very human yearning to cast an otherwise unstable, uncertain and ambiguous world into a real, tangible and supposedly enduring physicality. The small things we carry around with us daily provide little anchors that keep us from drifting off to sea. However, as I was discussing in my last blog, this is all a bit of a conceit, objects crumble and the world we live through isn’t very stable at all. Materialisation helps, but it cannot hold back the tide.
Baron von Schrenck-Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation is a book I came across when I was exploring Francis Bacon’s methods for my last blog. One of his three furies at the base of a crucifixion was based on a photograph in the book of one of von Schrenck-Notzing’s psychic mediums, Eva Carrière, exuding ectoplasm bearing a human face.
Phenomena of Materialisation is a fascinating book, a product of early 20th-century spiritualism and the flux of the interwar period. The book is a collection of scientifically-described seances during which ectoplasm was produced by mediums from unknown, otherworldly sources. Spiritual forces became physical; projections of the mind became bodily; matter appeared from nothing.
Materialization was a surprisingly prevalent belief and subject of scientific research in the later 19th and early 20th century. People would attend seances as a form of dubious entertainment or scientific investigation, which could be at once transcendental as well as pornographic. During the seances, mediums who could achieve modest fame for their abilities (like Eva Carrière, Helen Duncan or Jack Webber), would enter trance states, and communicate with particular deceased individuals, who would make themselves manifest through ectoplasmic extrusions depicting faces, hands, genitals, other body parts, whole bodies, or just semi-fluid forms.
Poor old Schrenck-Notzing, who seemingly believed his investigations to be scientific, was duped by Eva Carrière’s hoaxes. Her ectoplasm was in fact made from nothing more supernatural than paper and textile. Following the publication of Phenomena of Materialization the hoax was revealed and the baron became a laughing stock.
Schrenck-Notzing obviously wanted to believe in materialisation. He was aware that not all of Carrière’s mediumship was entirely honest, yet he still held onto a faith in some of her abilities through tenuous concessions. He had that human yearning to believe that the powers of the abstracted mind could create permanent physical objects, perhaps in a similar way that the anthropological understanding of materialisation reveals a desire to project the mind onto a material world.
The fact that it was all ultimately a hoax relates to anthropological beliefs in materialisation. The wedding ring does not actually contain a materialisation of love and fidelity, it’s merely comforting to think it does. The gift does not really contain a relationship between partners, but it’s a symbol of that bond, and a highly effective one. It’s nice to fetishize the material world, believe in some tangible but incomprehensible, super-human power in materials, but perhaps ultimately it reveals something of human desperation in the face of a psyche capable of abstract thought.
DeMarrais, E., Castillo, L.J. and Earle, T. 1996. ‘Ideology, materialization and power strategies’. Current Anthropology 37(1), 15-31.
Edwards, H. 1941. The Mediumship of Jack Webber. New York: E.P. Dutton. Full text available here.
Schrenck-Notzing, A. von 1920. Phenomena of materialisation: a contribution to the investigation of mediumistic teleplastics. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. Full text available here.
I am delighted to announce that myself and Kathrin Felder have had our session accepted for the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference this December (15th to the 17th) in Manchester. Our session is entitled “Networks of Dominance” and it’s all about the use of material culture in the creation and undermining of networks of power. I have a particular interest in this area of theory, because it relates closely to my current work on the role of jewellery in the creation of elite networks in post-Roman Europe, so I’m especially interested to learn from other scholars working in this area from diverse periods. More importantly, we’re seeking another 5-6 papers to complement those we already have confirmed. The presentations should be 20 minutes long, based on any period or region. The deadline for submissions is 17th October 2014. You can download our official document (.pdf) from this link, in which you can find full instructions on where and how to send proposals: TAG2014_NetworksOfDominance_CFP. Here’s our full blurb:
Networks of dominance – Aspects of inclusion and exclusion in archaeological approaches to social connectivity Session Organisers: Kathrin Felder (University of Cambridge), Dr Toby Martin (University of Oxford) Recent theoretical work on the nature of human-object relationships increasingly informs the study of past social networks. As a consequence, archaeology is embracing the view that studying past human connectivity is not just a matter of reconstructing the static material traces of social networks but an attempt to understand how people and objects interacted in a dynamic fashion to physically and mentally furnish the fabric of human society. Networks can be used in the pursuit and maintenance of social dominance through strategies of inclusion and exclusion. Simultaneously, networks of dominance can be resisted, contested or transformed through intentional non-participation or counter-activities. Such strategies are performed in arenas that are inescapably material, including access to (or prohibition from) objects circulated in exchange networks, or intentional segregation in the built and natural environment. We are interested in the archaeological study of such social and material strategies in the formation, maintenance and disintegration of networks and invite papers (20 minutes) from various fields of archaeological and interdisciplinary research that deal with, but need not be limited to, the following themes:
- Strategies of dominance through networks; their successes and failures
- Socio-material practices of networking (trade, gift exchange etc.) and material culture as a means of enabling dominance
- The biographies of networks of dominance
- Forms of participation and non-participation and their intended and non-intended consequences
- Inclusion and exclusion by access to (or prohibition from) specific material culture
- Methodological approaches to inclusion and exclusion in the study of human connectivity, including formal network-analytical approaches
We look forward to hearing from you!