470 Stephens Hall
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of British Columbia
The French physiologist Charles Richet in the 1890’s proposed that the strange phenomena of “materialization” observed in spiritualist séances— slime oozing from the bodily orifices of the spiritualist medium—should be understood as “ectoplasm,” as extrusions of protoplasm outwith the body of the medium “precisely as a pseudopod from an amoeboid cell.” Ghosts and table-turning were out, replaced by the biological equivalent of the ether, the ubiquitous protoplasmic prima materia responsible for transferring vibrations within all cells of all living beings. Richet’s proposal also framed the investigation not as a question of physics or psychology, but as a question of what Gustave Geley and Hans Driesch would respectively call “supra-normal physiology” or “supernormal biology,” a pursuit poised on the cusp between psychical research and the nascent discipline of plasmogeny or synthetic biology. This paper argues that this notion of biological investigation under special conditions reveals important dimensions of broader early 20th century debates about the nature of living substance and its properties such as mobility, plasticity, autonomy, and temporality. It also makes suggestions about the stakes of the “cellular politics” that swirled around these bizarre experiments.
Additional sponsorship comes from: Office for the History of Science and Technology