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Occult gender regimes: Polarity and the spirited body – I

In the early part of the nineteenth century, electricity was thought to be the force most likely to prove the existence of the elan vitale or life force of Naturalphilosophie. Schelling, at the turn of the century, for example, proposed that heat, light, magnetism and electricity were all byproducts of a single universal life force. The arising of electrical models allowed polarities to be discovered within organisms – and between discrete classes of persons. Thus maleness or masculinity was assigned to the positive pole, and femininity to the negative. The gendering of electricity and energy continued in the nineteenth century, particularly in respect to medical theories and the notion of “nervous energy”, and the rise in popularity of Spiritualism.

Nervous energies
The scientific investigation of “nervous energy” had begun in 1791 with the researches of Luigi Galvani – his experiments with “animal electricity” and muscular motion. Galvani’s experiments led him to conclude that nerves were capable of conducting energy and that the “invisible spirit” which flowed along them must be electrical in nature. His nephew Giovanni Aldini, performed experiments on the corpses of criminals – eventually compelling them to roll their eyes or lift heavy weights through the animating power of electricity. By the end of the eighteenth century, a number of medical practitioners had begun to theorise that diseases could be classified according to whether or not they were caused by either an excess, or a deficiency, of nervous energy.

Electrical theory was also wheeled out in support of the widespread belief that women were, whilst mentally and physically inferior to men, were more “sensitive”. Baron Charles Von Reichenbach in 1844 experimented with “feeble-brained” teenage girls, placing them in a darkened room and then exposing them to magnets. Reichenbach concluded that girls possessing a “diseased sensibility” could perceive a flickering aura around magnets. Reichenbach went on to develop a theory of “Odic force” which pervaded all matter – and that proper alignment with the Earth’s polarity could prevent illness. (Reichenbach’s theories are still being drawn on today as evidence for the scientific recognition of occult energies).

By the middle of the nineteenth century doctors were warning of the dangers of a depleted nervous system; over-exertion, could sap an individual’s reserves of nervous energy, and could lead to depression, fatigue, or melancholia. Nervous energy was often described in the terminology of economics or physics. For example, the American physician, George Beard, who coined the term “neurasthenia” in 1881 described sufferers as under-charged batteries – and the cause of neurasthenia was not moral lapses, but the pressures of modern civilisation caused by the new technologies of steam power, the telegraph, the popular press. Women, as the weaker gender, thought Beard, were more likely to succumb to the stresses of modern life. Women were particularly susceptible, according to Beard, if they tried to imitate men by seeking “excessive” education or intellectual efforts which depleted their store of nervous energy.

The enthusiasm for electrical therapy continued throughout the nineteenth century. By the 1880s, medical treatments had been joined by a panoply of popular devices offering relief (or stimulation) – and advertisements for electrical corsets, belts, hairbrushes etc., abounded. The link between electricity and sexual vitality which had first arisen in the previous century (as in the case of Graham’s celestial bed -see previous post in this series) also became a popular theme in fiction. James Maclaren Cobban’s 1890 thriller for example, The Master of His Fate features a physician protagonist who believes that electricity is the “universal principle in Nature”. He encounters an enigmatic figure who draws nourishment from the electrical vitality of others. Electricity is the spirit of life, it:

“flows and thrills in the nerves of men and women, animals and plants, throughout the whole of Nature! It connects the whole round of the Cosmos by one glowing, teasing, agonizing principle of being, and makes us beasts and trees and flowers all kindred!”
(quoted in Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray by Linda Simon, p165)

The concept of nervous energy was used both by doctors to account for female weaknesses, and, following the surge of interest in Spiritualism in the 1840s, by Spiritualists themselves in accounting for the particular suitability of women as mediums. Spiritualists, in attempting to distance themselves from charges of superstition, drew on current scientific theories and popular understandings of current technologies (such as the telegraph) for their accounts of spirit phenomena. One explanation, for example, of why women were particularly suitable for acting as mediums was their very weaknesses in the masculine qualities of will and intelligence – and their feminine qualities of passivity and impressionability; another was that women’s “negative charge” attracted spirits which were “positively charged”. Whilst women were routinely distinguished from men due to their powers of intuition or imagination, these seemingly positive traits were produced because women were weak-willed and unable to reason intellectually. Some Spiritualists believed that a woman’s abundance (or imbalance) of nervous energy made her more receptive to the higher electro-magnetic transmissions of the spirits, whilst doctors felt that this same imbalance led to ailments – considering the body as a great telegraphic network which, overtaxed by the unstable currents flowing through it, responded with hysteria and mania. For many physicians, belief in mediumship was both cause and symptom of a disordered nervous economy: “One might say, whereas the spiritualists imagined telegraphic technology as a means of transcending material existence in an out-of-body experience, medical science employed telegraphic metaphors to reground consciousness within the bodies of women who were thought to be out of their minds.” (Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted media: electronic presence from telegraphy to television p65). Women who left the home – as mediums did – and entered public life, were thought to be particularly susceptible to nervous diseases.

The Spiritual Telegraph
The first commercial telegraph was developed by Sir William Fothergill Cooke in 1837. In the early 1840s, the American Samuel Morse developed his system of telegraphy which involved encoding messages, which was accepted as the standard form of telegraphy in Europe by 1851 (Morse, like many other telegraphic pioneers continued his work in the afterlife via communications with mediums). By 1850, Victorian engineers had begun the herculean project of “wiring” the world, with John Watkin Bretts’ Anglo-French Telegraph Company laying the first underwater telegraph cable across the English Channel. In 1852, Britain and Ireland were linked together, and by 1858, the first transatlantic cable was laid between Washington and London – a special song composed for the occasion expressed the general feeling:

“One heav’nly spark unites for ever
The earth and ev’ry human breast;
All men are brothers wheresoever
Our eyes upon the earthball rest!”

Telegraphy became quickly associated with utopian visions of uniting humanity via technological progress (and political reform). The American scientist Edward Hitchcock, in his Religion of Geology (1852) makes an explicit link between the moral order of the universe and the forces which connect all humanity:

“It is as if each man had his foot on the point where ten thousand telegraphic wires meet from every part of the universe, and he were able, with each volition, to send abroad an influence along these wires, so as to reach every created being in heaven and in earth.”
(quoted in Gilmore, Aesthetic materialism p51)

At the same time that such utopian visions were being expounded, the telegraph was playing a key role in driving industrialisation – establishing what the Victorians called “Railway Time” – the establishment of a national “standardised” time – Greenwich Mean Time – was adopted by all British railway companies by 1848. The railway pioneer Henry Booth, in a pamphlet (1846) visioned the consequences of this move as “a whole nation stirred by one impulse; in every arrangement, one common signal regulating the movements of a mighty people!”

The telegraph – providing a seemingly instantaneous connection between minds over great distances, fired the Victorian imagination. The telegraph became a focus for both moral and affinitive connection – one example being the physicist James Maxwell Clark’s poem Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk:

“The tendrils of my soul are twined
With thine, though many a mile apart.
And thine in close coiled circuits wind
Around the needle of my heart.

Constant as Daniel, strong as Grove.
Ebullient throughout its depths like Smee,
My heart puts forth its tide of love,
And all its circuits close in thee.”

The first novel dealing with what we now would call an “online relationship” was Ella Cheever Thayer’s Wired Love – a Romance in Dots and Dashes (an Old Story Told in a New Way) (1879).

Just as the commercial telegraph connected persons over great distances, Spiritualists argued that the “celestial telegraph” was a bridge between worlds. Spiritualism grew rapidly in both Britain and America during the very period in which developments in commercial telegraphy proceeded apace. Some spiritualists (Emma Hardinge for exmple) even argued that the advent of the telegraph was initially inspired via contacts from the spirit world – in 1854 the American Universalist John Murray Spear proposed (following contact with the spirit of Benjamin Franklin) plans to construct a “soul-blending telegraph” operated by mediums which would conceivably compete with, if not surpass, the existing telegraph service. The British telegraph engineer Cromwell Varley (1828-83), who played a key role in the development of underwater cables and devices for detecting signal faults, was himself an ardent spiritualist, and believed that his electrical expertise could be used in the cause of furthering spirit communication. Varley proposed that the validity of spirit communications could be tested using electrical devices (it was Varley who later introduced William Crookes to Spiritualism following the death of his brother, Philip Crookes, on a cable-laying expedition in 1867.)

The obvious link was made between Morse’s code system and the coded raps used by the Fox sisters, and also the codes used by Spiritualists in conjunction with a Planchette. Communicating with the dead through coded raps and knocks was – as Jeffrey Sconce points out (Haunted Media, p28) – “only slightly more miraculous than talking with the living yet absent through dots and dashes”. Leading Spiritualists such as Andrew Jackson Davies and Allan Kardec made direct links between mediumistic communication and the electromagnetic action of the telegraph. In a similar vein, spiritualists began to speak of the bodies of mediums in terms of “spiritual batteries”; of circuits between seance sitters, and the necessary affinity between medium and spirit in terms of electro-magnetic flows and currents. For Davies, men and women sitters became positive and negative poles, and the principles of mediumship were identical to the “magnetic telegraph”. Some theorists proposed that the soul itself was electromagnetic in nature, or that disembodied consciousness could travel “telegraphically”. Its no coincidence that the first Spiritualist newspaper published in Britain (1855) was titled the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph. Spiritualism was driven by technological advancement, and seemingly offered an empirical basis for religious experience.

In my next post I’ll examine how understandings of mediumship and trance were underwritten by (and sometimes contested) notions of female passivity in the nineteenth century.

Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago University Press, 2004)
Linda Simon, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004)
Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted media: electronic presence from telegraphy to television (Duke University Press, 2000)
Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult and Communication Technologies 1859-1919 (Cornell University Press, 2010)
Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers (Berkley Publishing Group, 1999)
Wouter J. Hanegraaff & Jeffrey J. Kripal (Eds), Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (Brill, 2008)
Paul Gilmore, Aesthetic materialism: electricity and American romanticism (Stanford University Press, 2009)


  1. grant
    Posted September 3rd 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m nearly sure you’re aware of this, but just in case it hasn’t come up, telegraphy had a role in early feminism. A lot of the first telegraph operators were women (and there were romances between operators that echo the kind of internet romances that used to make the news in the 90s and that now no one thinks twice about).

    Actually, I see one women telegraph operators book in your bibliography there. Here’s another:


    Also, I stuck this quote on the cover of an album I made in the 90s. (Sold like 10 copies.) :
    Is it a fact–or have I dreamt it–that by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence: or shall we say it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we dreamed it.
    – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables.

    Definitely points to an old link between electricity, communication and thought.

  2. Jenny Peacock
    Posted September 5th 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Phil – a very erudite post which puts me in mind of Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the cinema “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), around which much has been written concerning utopian narratives and their relationship to the arrival phase of new technologies. In a similar way, as you know, much utopian writing about the internet took place in the 1990s, when that technology first became available to a greater number, for example some of Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s work (Sandy Stone). Interestingly, a great deal of 1990s “cyber-space” writing concerned the relationship between gender and the new technology, but of course, in a context very different from the nineteenth century one you describe, post two waves of feminism.

    In its form as “radical dreaming” I love technological utopian narrative, which dares to imagine creative human potential riding with new forms of communication. In our relationship to technology, new forms of person-hood do emerge (capitalism being the other great beast in the equation). There’s some interesting discussion on the phone app “Grindr” (essentially a cruising app) out there at the moment which continues themes of technology, identity and gender/sexuality.

  3. Phil Hine
    Posted September 6th 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink


    Thanks for that. As I’m trying to stick to my main theme here – which is the development of the relationship between forces, technology and gender polarity, there is much that, no matter how fascinating it is, I won’t be covering in much depth as it perhaps deserves. So for example, whilst there is a strong connection between Spiritualism and the Suffragette movement in America (see Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (Harper, 1999) I won’t be dwelling on this overmuch in the next post in this series.


    Yes, Utopian technological dreams are always interesting – I do find it fascinating that Spiritualism emerged at more or less the historical moment that Telegraphy was booming, and the utopian ideologies it generated of course, also fed into the capitalist discourses of improving the world through the triumph of technology/civilisation. And of course the telegraph played a key role in industrialisation and empire-building.