Spiritualism and the Formation of Religious Studies
Despite attempts to banish the uncanny to a pre-modern past, the figure of the ghost or spirit plays a distinctively modern role in the writings of seminal theorists of the nineteenth century (Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Durkheim). Spiritualism, which flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century, can be interpreted as a kind of internal critique and supplement to modernity, legible especially in relationship to contemporary practices and debates about slavery, imperialism, and religious authority. Religious studies as well as other modern academic disciplines emerged at the same time as this fascination with the invisible and the spirits of the dead. That is, our field arose in a cultural context where spirits were lively objects of inquiry even as religious studies defined itself in contrast to spiritualism, psychical research, and theosophy. We seek to explore how spiritualism informed the objects of concern to and methods, priorities, self-definition of religious studies. Engaging the spiritualist and esoteric context of the disciplining of religious studies will not only illuminate what continues to haunt religious studies but also offer alternative ways of enacting and conceptualizing our field. We are explicitly interested in how approaching the history of religious studies from this vantage point opens up both a clearer understanding of ongoing ruts in religious studies as well as possibilities for transforming the discipline.
Organized by Denise Buell and Jason Josephson
Williams College, Oakely Center, Jan 22, 2010