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Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism. By Emily Ogden. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. xiv + 268. $27.50 (paperback), $82.50 (hardcover).
by Charles McCrary
It can be a terribly tenuous thing, being modern. It slips. To be a secular liberal subject, a choosing agent, a person in control of faculties and wits, requires diligence. But if you’re ever unsure of your own enlightenment, it can be reassuring to find someone unenlightened. Even Benjamin Franklin, a healthy, wealthy, wise man—in modern parlance, very much on top of his shit—needed to consider his others. As a reminder of his own rationality, or perhaps as a way of establishing it, he took to identifying, studying, and debunking the irrational, the credulous. Credulity, like superstition or fanaticism or idolatry, emerged as a category for understanding what others do, and what’s wrong with them. But, as Emily Ogden shows in her brilliant book Credulity, demarcating the modern from the primitive was only the first of credulity’s uses.
Ogden investigates the various ways nineteenth-century US American mesmerists and their skeptics played seriously with credulity, navigating secular subjectivity and modernity in a supposedly-but-clearly-not-totally disenchanted age. Enchantment was useful, but it had to be studied and understood in order to be managed. “Mesmerists,” Ogden writes, “did not believe in magic, but they did believe in the utility of others’ belief. They were not enchanted themselves, but they were eager to use the enchantment of others” (3). What can a modern subject do with a credulous dupe, a primitive animist, a believer in magic? Credulity demonstrates how “the skeptic of this period sought to manage enchantment, not to suppress it. To confine, explain, and redeploy primitive religious power: these were the quintessential aspirations not just of mesmerists in particular but also of antebellum secularism in general” (5). The secular subject lives on one side of the “line between modernity and credulity” (24). About that line antebellum fiction authors and Ogden together ask, “how, by whom, and for what purposes it had been put there” (24). The answer is secularism, in so many words, the project of drawing the line and policing it, working to remember who’s on which side. In these ways, modern secular subjects are modern and secular because of this line—“enchantment can only be modern” (9)!—and, more specifically, their regulation thereof.
The first chapter focuses on the 1784 reports from a Parisian commission led by Benjamin Franklin on the new European fad of animal magnetism, popularized by Franz Anton Mesmer. Franklin and his fellow debunkers claimed that animal magnetism “did not exist.” But something was having effects on people. As Moderns, in Bruno Latour’s sense, the debunkers could not believe in the efficacy of material objects, but they could believe in the efficacy of others’ beliefs. “Thanks to its initial debunking,” Ogden writes, “animal magnetism could eventually become an instance of credulity deliberately practiced” (34). When a credulous believer believes—knows—that, say, an iron rod is controlling them through animal-magnetic power, they give in to it and then are in fact controlled. “Imagination did not merely trick them into thinking they were feeling heat in a magnetized part of the body, or convulsing; it tricked them into actually feeling heat and convulsing” (34). However, this worked only on subjects who were susceptible to this sort of control, those who were somehow weak-minded, primitive, or impressionable. It still could be used “to constitute the community of the enlightened by excluding the dupes” (52). And here we see an early example of the comparative study of religion, as certain commentators noticed that a variety of practices, from Indigenous rituals to camp-meeting revivals, looked awfully like animal magnetism (53).
Mesmerism developed into an American science in the 1830s, when Charles Poyen, a Creole sugar planter who learned about animal magnetism while in medical school in France, decided to put the practice to use. If, due to their not-so-buffered selves, “primitives” were susceptible to becoming mesmerized—somnambulant and suggestible—such a practice could become quite useful for controlling populations. And in this way, Ogden is careful to note, Poyen was not so different from the earlier generation of debunkers. They “thought credulity was primitive but so did Poyen: he wanted to control it in others, not succumb to it himself” (70). The goal was not to enlighten the whole population but, rather, to leverage enlightenment and to keep enchantment around insofar as it was useful. As other scholars have argued, secularization is not about eradicating religion or superstition, but about managing them. So, US mesmerists sought the disenchantment of the world, but not the whole world. “If disenchantment was supposed to liberate humanity from superstition’s spell, mesmerism did not aspire to set everyone free. No more did it envision a modernity in which everyone was subject to incantations. Mesmerism’s efficacy depended on keeping just certain people—somnambulists—enchanted” (83). The population whom Poyen was most keen on keeping enchanted were the enslaved persons who worked in his sugar fields.
Other Americans found other uses for mesmerism, though. And here, in chapters three and four, Credulity turns directly toward the ambiguities and anxieties of agency. Though Poyen and his colleagues wrote manuals and developed methods, the science of controlling others remained inexact. Chapter three offers an extended consideration of Loraina Brackett, a blind clairvoyant who while in a magnetic state could travel to faraway cities, describing accurately the geography and sensory experiences of the place. William Leete Stone, already renowned for exposing humbugs, investigated Brackett. What he found, though, was that in order to induce belief in her, so as to leverage her credulity, he too had to use his imagination. Stone and Brackett ended up telling stories together, operating in a “world of interdependency and playing along,” in which the tug and pull of agency and control—leader and follower, studier and studied, modern and credulous—was more complicated than Stone had anticipated (155). It’s all so hard to pin down. But, as Ogden describes in chapter four, people tried. Phrenomesmerists, with their psychrometers and sundry other tools and methods, “aimed to use mesmerism to map the phrenological organs more accurately, thus furnishing a tool for self-culture and education” (165). What mesmerism did better than phrenology was change subjects, not just measure them. It was a practical science.
What does it mean to be free, to be a secular agent in this context? Drawing from Talal Asad, Ogden writes, “The paradox at the heart of secular agency—that the self, to be free from external control, must already be subject to the control of a self fully free and aware—means that the agent can never quite pin down that part of itself that is fulfilled and in control” (177). According to Latour, Moderns have two options: “either you are cynically pulling the strings, or else you are being had” (quoted on 43). Stone and Brackett’s collaborative world-making hints toward other options. In an insightful and fresh reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), Ogden insists that the much-maligned Miles Coverdale, accused by modern critics of failing to exercise enough agency, instead undertakes “an experiment in a kind of selfhood that neither veils nor enslaves others” (183). He is “not much of an agent” (184). But, again, what exactly is the character of secular agency and freedom?
By the 1850s, Spiritualists had superseded mesmerists in popularity and influence in the United States. Spiritualists had different political goals, beliefs, metaphysics, and practices, but, Ogden notes, in at least one key way they continued mesmerists’ project: “Spiritualists, too, believed in belief and thought it could be put to use” (203). In this chapter, Ogden’s main contribution to the already robust literature on US (and British) Spiritualism is to trace their lineage through the mesmerists and the debunkers. They are part of the same secularization story. “Spiritualists shaped a narrative in which mesmerism was the primitive practice that they had rationalized” (224). Were Spiritualists really secular, working to bring about disenchantment? How does this type of disenchantment work? Here, a well-placed quotation from John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America (2011), makes the point: for the influential Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis, disenchantment “was not the vanquishing of ghosts. Rather, it was a matter of calculating them” (224). And, as Ogden stresses throughout, it was a matter of putting them to work. This is what mesmerists and Franklin had in common; they studied credulous subjects and reassured themselves of their own modern, rational, secular subjectivities. But now, for Spiritualists, mesmerists were the credulous ones. Spiritualists spoke both with and in “the Spirit of Benjamin Franklin.” Franklin’s spirit was one of the most popular visitors to nineteenth-century American séances. When he spoke to antebellum Spiritualists, he sometimes made the same anti-mesmerist arguments as the earthly Franklin had. Unlike credulous mesmerists, the Spiritualists and (spirit-)Franklin were modern.
Credulity is an extraordinary achievement. It is the best kind of interdisciplinary American studies scholarship, deftly navigating canonical American literature, critical theory, and archival sources, presenting them in sharp and engaging prose. Very few works of scholarship are both intensely smart and deeply pleasurable to read (and most are neither), but Credulity surely is, and it repays close, careful reading and rereading. Its clearest critical intervention, at least for this reader, is in secularism studies. Specifically, Ogden clearly and creatively applies Latour’s insights on scientism and the Moderns to work on secularism by Modern, Asad, and others. Secularization is not the disappearance of religion but the management of it, the processes of separating it from the secular and, just as importantly, the troubling slough-off third categories like magic and superstition. By zeroing in on credulity, Ogden both excavates a key nineteenth-century category and offers new analytical vocabulary. By focusing on mesmerists, she highlights previously understudied historical actors and texts, and when discussing more familiar material she does so with fresh lenses and questions. She treats her subjects, even fictional ones, with generosity and grace. But the book’s contributions go beyond even that. Rather than a formal conclusion restating the book’s claims, Ogden gifts the reader a truly stunning coda on Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits (1989) and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) that works simultaneously as historiographical corrective, critique of second-wave feminism, and meditation on freedom itself. I don’t want to spoil the whole thing, which I implore you to read, but here is a snippet: “There is no special reason why you would be freer from your idol when your idol is your freedom of choice than when it is your little wooden god. The problem with the empowerment argument is that it assumes that freedom is a better master. On the Pequod, freedom is the worst master” (235). These are not strictly nineteenth-century issues—subjectivity, agency, freedom. Like credulity, or religion, it’s not just about who has them and who doesn’t, but how they get them, and how they use them.
Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 179.
Charlie McCrary is a postdoctoral fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.