Occult gender regimes: Polarity and the body electric
“In taste, in learning, wit or science,
Still kindred souls demand alliance:
Each in the other joys to find
The image answering to his mind.
But sparks electric only strike
On souls electrical alike;
The flash of intellect expires,
Unless it meet congenial fires.”
Hannah More, The Bas Blue 1786
For this series of posts on the theme of polarity discourse, I’m going to focus on representations of polarity which make an appeal to forces – to electricity, magnetism, etc.
Its not unusual to see arguments for polarity supported by exhortations to think of how polarity “works” in terms of electricity, magnetism, or the generic, all-encompassing term “energy”. My contention here, is that the explanations of sex/gender polarity which are underwritten by appeals to “energies” of various kinds did not pop out of nowhere and that, despite ahistorical appeals to esoteric tradition or the energy systems of “ancient cultures”, the roots of these discourses can be traced back to concepts which emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly with reference to electricity and thermodynamics, and the technologies of the industrial age – telegraphy for example, which were used to create new understanding of bodies in energetic terms.
The Eighteenth century was a period of rapid social & political change, over the course of which, due to a wide variety of factors, the pre-Enlightenment (Aristotlean) view that women were “inferior men” shifted towards the recognisably “modern” view that men and women were different sexes. This did not happen in a neatly linear fashion, nor was this primarily because of the advance of scientiifc discoveries, but in social and political changes which laid the groundwork for the naturalisation of the concept that men and women were incommensurably opposite and that gender was biological. I’ll be returning to look at some of the other factors which gave rise to the concept that the sexes were distinct opposites in a future post.
For now, I want to focus briefly on advances in electricity, out of which emerged new ways of conceptualising the human body. During the eighteenth century, electrical discoveries and applications came very swiftly. The first incandescent light bulb was made in 1709. In 1733, Dufray postulated that there were two types of electricity – resinous, and vitreous. In 1730, Stephen Grey performed the first electrical experiment on a human being, electrifying a young boy. This led to a rise in the electrification of human beings as both entertainment and educational spectacle. One of the most popular demonstrations was the was the “electrifying Venus” invented by GM Bose, in which a woman stood on an insulated stool while an operator charged her body with an electrical machine. Men in the audience were invited to kiss her, but would be discouraged by a strong spark. Bose himself immortalised this spectacle in verse:
“Once only, what temerity!
I kissed Venus standing on pitch.
It pained me to the quick. My lips trembled
My mouth quivered, my teeth almost broke”
(quoted in Bertucci, Sparks in the dark: the attraction of electricity in the eighteenth century Endeavour, Vol.31 No.3)
Bose produced an explanation of electrical phenomena based on a distinction between male and female electric fire – the male fire was strong and powerful and visibly manifested as sparks; whilst the female fire was a weak, luminous emanation – the kind of light that characterised the aurora borealis, and Charles Rabiqueau viewed sexual reproduction as an electrical process the ovaries being “inert and lifeless: like an unlit candle or an egg ready to receive the spark of life”.
Demonstrations of the electric fire were often billed as educational, but it is fairly evident that the spectacular public and salon demonstrations had erotic undertones, and the vocabulory of electricity attracted the attentions of pornographic satirists:
“What makes our first felicity,
But this pure electricity,
Divested of all fiction:
Motion makes heat, and heat makes love,
Creatures below, and things above,
Are all produc’d by friction.”
An Elegy on the the Lamented Death of the Electrical Eel (1777)
From the 1740s, there was a rapid growth in medical uses of electricity – particularly in the treatment of paralysis and hysteria. A key figure here (particularly in America) was Benjamin Franklin. Franlkin was a firm advocate of electrical medicine, and he developed a theory that certain bodies had an excess or positive amount of electricity and were therefore positively charged, and that others had a deficiency of electricity and were negatively charged. Franklin believed that electric fire was a “subtle fluid” which existed in ordinary matter – and that its behaviour could best be understood in terms of microscopic particles acting between material bodies. Electricity was a universal, lawful and predictable power -subject to rational mastery. The innovative Anglican leader John Wesley (1706-1790) saw electricity as a “subtle fire” pervading the universe, present in the air, the human body, and animating the universe – a divine power.
The widespread use of electrical treatment led to disputes between physicians – who made their claim to authority on the basis of diagnostic expertise, and nonmedical practitioners, who were labelled as quacks. One medical-electrical entrepeneur who was labelled as a “quack” was James Graham, who opened a “Temple of Health” in London, which featured a large “Magneto-electric” bed which guaranteed conception for any couple who disported upon it: Any gentleman and lay desirous of progency, and wishing to spend an evening in the Celestial apartment, which coition may, on compliment of a [fifty pound] banknote, be permitted to partake of the heavenly joy it affords by causing immediate conception, accompanied by soft music. Superior ecstasy which the parties enjoy in the Celestial Bed is really astonishing and never before thought of in this world: the barren must certainly become fruitful when they are powerfully agitated in the delights of love. (quoted from Pushbutton psychiatry: a history of electroshock in America pp8-9). Graham thought that sexual attraction was electrical in character – a view which can also be found in John Cleland’s (1749) Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in which Fanny Hill proclaims on “that principle of electricity which scarce ever fails of producing fire, when the sexes meet”.
Frank Anton Mesmer also became a target of medical disfavour, and, largely thanks to an investigative committee which included Franklin, was dismissed as a fraud. I’ll try and come back to Mesmer’s ideas another time.
Electricity, over the course of eighteenth century became a force that connected bodies and minds; it’s power was linked to sexuality and passion, and the discoveries fueled both theological and rational speculation about universal forces. These themes continued to develop in the nineteenth century and I’ll be examining the relationship between gender, polarity and Spiritualism in the next post in this series.