Case Study: Hybrid Spaces of Experimentation and Parapsychology
Hybrid spaces of experimentation and parapsychology offer another entry point into twentieth- and early twenty-first-century lab imaginaries. In 1942, almost a century after the Fox sisters kicked off the first wave of Modern Spiritualism with their knockings and rappings, and some fifty years after the “Ghost Baron” von Schrenck-Notzing’s lab, the life’s work of Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, a prominent scientific and public figure in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was published in a book with the ponderous title of Intention and Survival: Psychical Research Studies and the Bearing of Intentional Actions by Trance Personalities on the Problem of Human Survival.35 Hamilton was a member of the surgical staff at Winnipeg General Hospital, a faculty member at the University of Manitoba, President of the Manitoba Medical Association, and a member of the Manitoba Legislative Association from 1915–1920—the epitome of good citizenship and scientific rationality. From 1918 to his death in 1935, Hamilton’s chief interest was spiritualism.
An entire hauntological book could be written about Hamilton, as he generated an incredible amount of documentation—more than 1,300 notes and 700 images—now gathered in the Hamilton family fonds at the University of Manitoba.36 As noted in Intention and Survival, In this archive, lab discourse shapes the sense of the proceedings: séances are “experiments” (2–11 passim) and participants are “experimenters” (14–215 passim); supernatural entities are “communicators” (1–5 passim) When the various mediums begin to exude viscous substances in much the way a camera exudes developed film, it’s overwhelmingly described as “teleplasm” rather than “ectoplasm,” with the prefix “tele-” emphasizing its role as a literal medium for communication over a distance, likely to include “simulacra” (embedded photographic images) (5–53 passim).
Teleplasm is an impossible hybrid object, a physical manifestation of the medium but also something unearthly, intended to be seen rather than touched.37 Handling it, the Hamiltons suggest, might cause the medium who exudes it to suffer “nervous shock,” which places an “ethical responsibility” on the “sincere investigator.” The potential of such a nervous shock produces a significant gap in the empiricism which guided these experimenters, where superstition trumps scientific method, because the interdiction in Intention and Survival is absolute: “It marks one of the boundaries of his experimental technique” (9).
The only person other than Hamilton who was present throughout all of the experiments was Lillian Hamilton, his wife, who “took notes occasionally and did much of the secretarial work involved in the maintenance and analysis of records” (25). In addition to Lillian Hamilton’s notes (handwritten and in subsequent typewritten transcripts), “From time to time special scrutineers and observers submitted signed reports and on several occasions each individual present made a witnessed statement which covered all the pertinent facts of the occasion” (38)—a process reminiscent of Shapin and Schaffer’s real and virtual witnessing. Other “non-psychic participants” lent their scientific, technical, and academic authority to the group: Mr. H. A. Reed, “a telephonic engineer holding a very responsible position with the provincial telephone system;” Dr. J. A. Hamilton, T. G. Hamilton’s brother; and “Miss Ada Turner, M.A., head of the English Department of one of the larger secondary schools of the city” (25).
The mediums require special mention because they are hybrids, somewhere in between being a participant and being part of the lab apparatus. Intention and Survival claims that the four mediums who worked with the group over the years—Mary M. (or Mrs. Marshall); Mercedes (Mrs. Samuel Marshall, Mary M.’s sister-in-law); Ewan (“whose name we have been requested to withhold for personal reasons, is a man of university training in one of the professions”); and Elizabeth M. (Mrs. Poole), “did not hold any specific conscious intention towards the production of teleplasm” (26, 30, 31, 92, 26). The ambivalence of the mediums is reflected in the convention of them all having two names (a mundane name and a medium name), but Ewan was also explicitly skeptical of this own abilities: “he very consciously and actively maintained a hypercritical attitude towards his own and other trance products, professing doubt in their intrinsic value and heaping ironic derision upon many of the more bizarre effects” (30). The group refers to the entities that manifest themselves through the mediums as “controls,” imposing scientific legitimacy over cultural squeamishness.38 Likewise, the non-psychic experimenters “controlled” the medium by inspecting their upper body, then holding their hands “in order to satisfy themselves that no substance was on or near these parts at that time and that, further, by the fact of the vigilant control which they exercised, no substance could have been placed on or near those parts by normal physical means” (37).
A specially prepared hybrid laboratory/séance room on the second floor of Hamilton’s home produced hundreds of photographs to accompany Lillian Hamilton’s notes.39 The cultural techniques the researchers employed fall somewhere between spiritualism and science: Intention and Survival notes that “Singing during seances was regularly practiced. Apart from an imagined loss of dignity in scientific investigation this technique is perfectly admissible” (24) The séance room/lab’s windows were boarded over and the room was locked between experiments and barred from the inside during seances (34). The furniture was simple, but the lab apparatus was not. It’s instructive to compare the three different extant records of this space because the print description and the architectural “view and plan” of the séance room each leave very different impressions than the photograph of it.
The print descriptions of the setup that appear in various places, like much lab discourse, describes the equipment in passive voice to remove any sense of subjective agency—“The battery of cameras included a number using 5 x 7-inch plates; two stereoscopic cameras; one camera fitted with a wide-angle lens and another equipped with a quartz lens” (34). In the fonds, there are multiple typed, numbered lists specifying camera makes, models and capabilities.
Likewise, the two-dimensional plan provides names and locations of participants (who are also part of the lab apparatus) as well as locations and descriptions of the photographic apparatus, the phonograph, the three flash devices and their trigger, ventilation, and so on (35).
The plate showing “Arrangement of cameras,” on the other hand, presents a haphazard arrangement of a motley assortment of photographic devices that raises more questions than it answers (36).
The statement that “[d]evelopment of the plates was ordinarily done by Dr. Hamilton” raises eyebrows, as does Hamilton’s rhetorical question about how he knew where to focus the various cameras: “how did we know where to focus the cameras, and in the second place, when to release the flashlight? Astonishing as it may seem, days, weeks, and sometimes months in advance we were informed by the leading trance entity at what point the coming phenomena would in all likelihood appear” (34; 23).
The lab discourse of Intention and Survival presents all of the preceding as incontrovertible evidence that Hamilton’s production of matters of fact adhered to the most scrupulous scientific criteria. The text would have it that the sum total of research material that Hamilton and his associates produced is nothing more or less than thick description:
The internal evidence borne by the teleplasms themselves, the complexity of the group mediumship, the nature and reactions of the trance states all indicate that we are here dealing with a mass of facts so inextricably interlocked and so impossible to simulate, that to suggest fraud as an explanation is simply to show a bias against the theoretically unacceptable instead of a favor for the descriptive, empirical truth. (33)
However, Hamilton’s practice was already an atavism. As Daniel Wojcik points out, most scholarly accounts of this form of spirit photography see it as having drawn to a close by the 1930s “because of the exposés of fraudulent photographers, the overall demise in Spiritualism and materialization phenomena, an increase in photographic literacy, and the seeming banality of such images.”40 From a twenty-first-century perspective, the question is not whether the images that Hamilton and his fellow experimenters produced look quaint when compared to AI-generated deep fakes, but about how this hybrid lab generated materials and discourse that perpetuated a long-standing aspect of the lab imaginary. The assemblage of lab imaginary, space, apparatus, people, technique, and discourse at work in this case was potent enough that even long after the heyday of spirit photography, it was able to produce things that looked much like matters of fact to many of Hamilton’s contemporaries.41