Common Phantoms

An American History of Psychic Science

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Alicia Puglionesi
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , August
     2020.
     336 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781503612778.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

While the subtitle more than hints at the content of Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science, it does not offer much to indicate the perspective Alicia Puglionesi brings to her study. She begins with “strange experiences” of premonitions or ghostly visits of deceased relatives that disrupt the continuity of the everyday and jar what constitutes identity and the nature of reality. Such experiences the author tells us are usually “banished . . . to a corner of the map where superstition and madness reigned” (2). In the late 19th century, others thought differently and, charged by an enthusiasm egged on by emerging scientific inventions, embarked on a large-scale enterprise aptly named psychical research and whose primary organizational expression in the United States was the American Society for Psychical Research founded in 1884. Included in its subject matter were trance states, hypnotism, clairvoyance, and a host of similar experiences as well as the aforementioned premonitions and ghostly visits. All shared the common criteria of “involving some perception, thought, or action that appeared to enter the subject’s consciousness from elsewhere but had no external, material correlate” (2).

As to the author’s perspective, Puglionesi shifts from the language and terminology of psychical research to describing and interpreting such experiences “in a broader historical perspective as liminal states and contested experiences” (2). The term contested indicates that these experiences are not only contested as to the truth or otherwise of their occurrence but of exactly what they indicated in terms of sanity or insanity as determined by the rising fields of psychiatry and psychology.

Moreover, many individuals who were attracted to psychical research were amateurs whose interests were in pushing the boundaries of what constituted data that could become the focus of scientific study. An enormous amount of material was collected, collated, and correlated, much of it anecdotal or based on observations of such events as seances held in salons or parlors whose revelations were difficult to assess since they largely involved disclosures from the “other world.” In the end, with few exceptions, psychical research lost its status as a legitimate form of inquiry among professional scientists and in the academy and was relegated to the benign category of “magical thinking” or the more socially malignant one of criminal fraud or even psychopathology.

Nevertheless, to her credit the author does not follow the arc of this trajectory and instead leads us into the various twists and turns of the story of the pursuit of establishing a psychic science and the ambitions that fueled it rooted in the strange experiences she highlights. She offers digressions into the mainly Protestant, middle and upper middle class, white Euro-American figures who launched psychical research along with the marginalizing or even commodification of persons of color whose cameo appearances were largely as stereotype figures in seances.

Gender, too, comes in for comment on both sides of the divide, believers and skeptics, and the male domination of the implicated institutions and accompanying claims and judgements. In the end the author shares with us her personal interest in the topic and not unsympathetic appreciation of the attempts, whatever their shortcomings, to filling in the empty spaces left by our individual and collective common phantoms.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

F.X. Charet is the coordinator of the Consciousness Studies concentration and chair of The Graduate Institute, Goddard College. 

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alicia Puglionesi is author of the novella Krall Krall (2013) and the poetry chapbook Views from the National Forests (2014). She has published in The Point, Atlas Obscura, The Public Domain Review, and the VICE magazine Motherboard.

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