Title: Christine Ferguson - Other Worlds: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Cross-Cultures of Spiritualism. Source: Situating Science. Date Published: February 5, 2014. Description:
October 30, 2013
Dr. Christine Ferguson, University of Glasgow
University of Alberta
A part of the Alfred Russel Wallace lecture series at the University of Alberta.
In 1848, a young Alfred Russel Wallace arrived at the gate to the Amazon river in Pará, ready to embark on the exploration tour that would provide him with his first extended contact with non-Western indigenous peoples. Thousands of miles to the north, an encounter of a very different kind was taking place in the rural hamlet of Hydesville, New York. Here the young mediums Kate and Maggie Fox had just started to receive the rapped séance communications that would launch the international modern spiritualist movement. My lecture considers the impact of contact with these sometimes overlapping constituencies of spirits and non-Western peoples on Wallace's writings on social progress and spiritual evolution. Wallace entered the public sphere as a defender of spiritualism at a time when anthropological accounts of cross-cultural spirit belief was regularly being claimed by believers and anti-Spiritualists alike— William Howitt and E.B. Tylor, to name just a few— as evidence for their respective positions. Wallace remained relatively silent on the subject of so-called "savage" spiritualism in his main spiritualist opus Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1875), perhaps out of fear of confirming the Tylorite equation of modern séance practices with primitive survivals; yet in his late-life sociological and biographical writings, he became far more explicit in his incorporation and endorsement of the numinous testimony of global indigenous peoples. I read Wallace's shifting position towards the evidentiary value of non-Western spiritualism as an important index of both his increasing skepticism towards the Enlightenment project and of the role of race in Victorian spiritualist and occult thought.