(B2-7) The Power of the Medium: Spiritualism and Social Order in the Second Half of the 19th Century

Spiritualism as a ritually regulated communication with the spirits of the deceased is an interculturally common phenomenon deeply rooted in human history. Its modern history began as a reaction to the rationalistic currents of the Enlightenment when novel, highly speculative world interpretations created an alternative to the traditional styles of piety, which had come under the enlightenend criticism of religion, in Europe and the US towards the end of the 18th century. In the wake of a story about two peasant girls, which was frequently described in contemporary literature, Spiritualism eventually became a mass movement: in their house in the small town of Hydesville in the state of New York in 1848, Margaret and Kate Fox were said to have noticed unexplainable knocking sounds which they ascribed to a dead pedlar. The poltergeist indeed seemed to answer the questions put to him in a meaningful manner, as the interested townspeople could soon satisfy themselves. The news was eagerly taken up by the press and led to a downright spiritualistic fashion in the US, but also in Europe. The spiritualistic phenomenon awakened the interest of scientists and new salvation providers alike. The latter eventually shaped the spiritualistic practices into a new religious world interpretation which still has numerous adherents even today.

In its formation phase and heyday around the middle of the 19th century, modern Spiritualism rested on a interconnection of several, cultural-historically significant developments: on the one hand, it relates to early religious pluralisation processes in Europe and the US; on the other hand, it is associated with profound media-historical upheavals of the time. For example, the transatlantic spread of Spiritualism in particular is hardly imaginable without the emergence of the modern mass press. Furthermore, the formation of Spiritualism as a religious worldview took place at a time when innovative techniques of presenting and transmitting news developed new forms of ‘mediality’. For many spiritists, the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph in particular became the background of their religious imagination of a transmission from the beyond. It is above all this interconnection of religious-historical and media-historical processes that will be analysed in more detail in the project described here. In addition, the project will contribute to investigating the emergence of alternative religious cultures in the process of progressive secularisation.

The Project is part of interconnecting platform E Differentiation and De-Differentiation and coordinated project group Secularisation and sacralisation of media.