Whatever spirit is—and the term has many meanings—you usually have to get rid of some other encumbering things in order to get at it. The encumbrances might be body and passion, as when spirit is willing while the flesh is weak. They might be matter, as when the essence of hartshorn is distilled from a buck’s massy antlers. The encumbrances might be contingent events as opposed to the indwelling spirit of history, as in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Or the lumbering inessentials may include just about every quality of a thing but its attitude. When we are told that Charles Lindbergh’s plane is called the Spirit of St. Louis, or when a deodorant smells like Teen Spirit, we are meant to remember only the loftiest and best parts of these things. A very partial list of what’s excised from our concepts of teen-ness and St. Louis-ness would have to include sweat, body, gender, city infrastructure, racial segregation, and politics—in short, everything that stinks. The spirit of Spirit, if you will, is demolition.

Spirit in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century US trance experience is no exception. US spiritualists active in the second half of the nineteenth century contacted the beyond through a variety of mediumistic techniques. Mediums were people capable of making their bodies into conduits of otherworldly communication. Sometimes spirits wrote, spoke, or gestured using the medium’s body; at other times unusual events, such as disembodied tappings or guitars playing themselves, happened uniquely in the medium’s presence. Crucially, mediums were clear channels: they passed messages on without intervening in them. Mediumship was thus aligned with other forms of experience, such as Protestant awakenings, Shaker visions, and Quaker meetings, in which the direct receipt of Spirit appeared as the deletion of institutional encumbrances, whether clerical or textual, between the individual and the divine.

The spirits conveyed messages and performances of diverse kinds, including news from the beloved or the illustrious dead, hints on the location of lost objects, visions of a more equal society, and racist fantasias in which mediums channeled indigenous people, or in other words, played Indian. Among the many genres of spirit communication, one stood out for its direct tension with spirit’s anti-hierarchical reputation. This genre might be called the vatic org chart: it imagines the Summerland, the spiritualist heaven, as a place whose intersecting spheres, circles, and electrical connections are as difficult to track as the parts of a complex institution. How do we think about the fact that spiritualism reinstated hierarchy in heaven, when hierarchy was the very thing the practice had seemed explicitly designed to shed? Why, in other words, is the Summerland so bureaucratic?

Andrew Jackson Davis, who became spiritualism’s unofficial theologian, and the medium Joseph D. Stiles both had visions of this sort. While Davis’s anti-clericalism, in The Principles of Nature, leaves him calling clergyman the most “unenviable” and “corrupting” of professions, his heaven is a hierarchy of beings variously inhabiting at least seven spheres, some with sub-spheres, in which contact among parties is regulated according to degrees of enlightenment. Stiles describes at length the hierarchies of heaven, with levels, circles, and connecting lines of liaison represented by electrical charge. In one passage, the spirit of Samoset presides over one circle, predictably lower than the circle that has Benjamin Franklin at its head. Each circle lies in a different sphere, and independently of these levels, there are electrical interchanges between the two circles as Franklin shocks Samoset.1 Davis and Stiles envisioned heaven’s power dynamics and official channels even as spiritualists in their earthly practice apparently desired to clear such formalities away.

So deliverance from bureaucracy looked a lot like bureaucracy. Liberation looked like the metastasis, not the absence, of constraint. Is this very bad? Is it as bad as it sounds? At stake in the spiritualists’ copying of hierarchy is the question of their freedom: did they end up reproducing, symptomatically and in spite of themselves, the very thing they were trying to escape, because there simply is no way of getting outside our historical conditions? Questions of this sort have become quite familiar in the humanities. Viewing power in terms of a circulating discourse that cannot be located in a sovereign and that cannot, therefore, be escaped, scholars may feel as though their subjects—and themselves—are caught, in Rita Felski’s apt phrase, “in a spiderless web.”

Thus, because freedom from system is at stake for spiritualists, an affective situation is, I think, likely to be at stake for the scholars in the humanities who study them: an affect we could call Foucauldian melancholy. The state of Foucauldian melancholy is the one where you find yourself asking with some anguish, or maybe by now it’s with boredom, is there no exit from the system? Is there no character in the novel who escapes the general satire? Isn’t there one single moth who keeps his wings free? Is there no outside?

It both does and does not make sense that Michel Foucault’s work inspires these unpleasant states. It does make sense because he gives us the immensely influential model of modernity in which this period is characterized by the rise of the total institution, and by power that makes us in its timetables and its examinations rather than breaks us on its Catherine wheels. It doesn’t make sense because Foucault is rarely, if ever, to be found wringing his hands. If there is a Foucauldian melancholy, Foucault did not come down with it. He is an arch, a satirical, a lyrical writer, but ordinarily not an anguished one. In fact, he seems to take a certain pleasure in the poeisis of our responses to power; his Carolus Linnaeus “dreams” in “botanical calligrams.” Linnaeus’s reveries took him deeper into system, not out of it. So there is no freedom if you think freedom is finding the exit. But there is poetry.

Susan Stewart calls “the poet’s freedom” the capacity to make and destroy. Here, freedom is not an escape from the matrix but the adoption of the position of fantastical architect with respect to the matrix’s mirror image. Stewart describes a boy who builds a sandcastle with “turrets, moats, interior walls, indentations carved by a spoon’s edge to show where the windows would be.” His work complete, he suddenly destroys the castle—not out of pique, but with delight. Stewart comments, “Without the freedom of reversibility enacted in unmaking . . . we cannot give value to our making.” With his destruction, “the boy seemed to be returning the power of the form back into himself.”

If we think along these lines, the spirit of Summerland bureaucracy may be a certain kind of free spirit after all. Like a clerical hierarchy, a castle—a medieval fortress, after all—is a technology of power. Stewart’s boy claims this power as his own to use or to destroy. He makes it as brittle as it is unlimited. Brittle poeisis is to be found in spiritualist organizational fantasias, too. The fragility resides in the fact that the org charts seldom quite hang together. Are Davis’s spheres concentric, or what? Are Samoset and Franklin just floating somewhere? I have never yet successfully drawn one of these systems out on paper; maybe that’s just me, but I suspect that they are diagrammatic without actually being diagrammable (to his credit, Davis did try). The power to will these systems into being, then let them collapse under the weight of their own impracticality, is what Davis and Stiles claim in the name of spirit. The castle in the air is theirs to kick. The moth skates through the damaged web. Demolition actually works this time.


  1. Robert Cox has an excellent discussion of this scene in Body and Soul.