ABSTRACT

Drawing on archival research, this article locates and categorizes ways that suffering was made to figure as an excess, dynamized through the body of spiritualist mediums, in séance performance during the early twentieth century. Across these categories—Convulsion, Displacement, Speech Breaking, Invasion or Wounding, Crushing, and Exhaustion—I analyze how techniques of physicalizing suffering provided materiality to spirit presence so as to make it sensible, somatically and semantically, to early twentieth-century spectators. I argue that suffering played a critical role in believability and contributed to a spectatorial experience that affirmed spiritualist belief in “living spirit” and a reality in which the dead have agency. The article concludes with discussion about spiritualism as a unique and productive case study for thinking through broader methodological challenges and approaches for analyzing the materiality of performance.

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