Friday, 14 August 2009

The Portrayal of Spiritualism in the popular media...

Spiritualism, and indeed most paranormal beliefs, have long borne the brunt of ridicule and humiliation; a trend that appears to be continuing. This is likely a concomitant aspect of the general movement towards rationalisation and secularisation that has been taking place over the last 200 years or so, particularly in Europe and North America.

A recent documentary on Channel 4, "Revelations: Talking With the Dead", although providing a fascinating insight into the lives of an East London Spiritualist Church congregation, continued to report based upon the assumption that the beliefs they held were false.

There has been a similar problem in the attempts of anthropologists and sociologists studying Spiritualist groups. Vieda Skultans' (1974) classic study of Spiritualism in a Welsh town focused primarily on the social function of the Spiritualist meetings: on the fact that such gatherings allow for an escape from the mundaneity of day-to-day living and the therapeutic effects this necessarily entails. While this is undoubtedly a significant factor, it inherently ignores the claims of those participating in the groups to communication with spirit entities and other psi phenomena.

The assumption that paranormal beliefs are unfounded and inherently false inevitably leads to a distorted representation of the individuals world-view: it makes them appear ridiculous. A substantial amount of "backstory" is ignored. This is most clearly visible in the documentary sequence between Keith Hudson and the Publican. The Publican is unaware of the philosophical underpinnings of what Keith is saying, so that when Keith speaks of the notion that a spirit chooses his/her parents before incarnating on the Earth-plane, or of the intensity of colours in the spirit world, to the Publican he is doing no more than ranting like a madman. This is very difficult to avoid. It brought to mind classic scenarios of visionary mystics being ridiculed as madmen.

The documentary did provide a fascinating social insight into the lives of the spiritualist congregation, but to some extent I feel that it missed the point; as do many commentators on spiritualism and paranormal belief. Without the necessary appreciation of underlying philosophical and experiential understanding, paranormal beliefs can appear fully irrational and entirely at odds with the "real world". This is unfair.

The anthropologist E.E. Evans Pritchard was one of the first anthropologists to question the assumption that so-called "primitive" beliefs were irrational. Through living amongst the Azande of North Africa, Evans Pritchard came to appreciate the inherent logic in their supernatural belief system. Living within a belief system provides the anthropologist with a necessary "insider" perspective, through which a more substantial understanding can be gleaned.

I have mentioned Edith Turner's 1992 article "The Reality of Spirits" a number of times, and feel I must do so again here. Turner calls for a new approach to the sudy of religious beliefs, one that does not ignore the understanding of those under study. Such an approach might also benefit documentary makers. I am certain that the filmmakers did not intend to make their interviewees appear irrational or foolish, but through presenting their story without providing a deeper context to the Spiritualist movement and its related phenomena the documentary, to my mind, alienated the interviewees. As isolated examples, devoid of wider context the interviewees were made to appear particularly insular, and hence abnormal. The truth of the matter is, however, that there is a much wider context than the documentary even hinted at (i.e. historical background of spiritualism and mediumship, survival research, altered states of consciousness, countless narrative accounts of the phenomenology of mediumship, etc.).

All in all, though, this documentary was very interesting. It was good to see the topics discussed made available to a wider audience in a relatively un-biased fashion.

As an interesting side-note: several commentators on the Channel 4 page for the documentary have noted the presence of Orbs around one of the interviewees.

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