An “Enlightened” Threshold to the Afterlife: A Revisionist Cultural History of Nineteenth Century Spiritist Reworkings of Science, Evolutionism, and Positivism

Dr. Raquel Romberg, Tel Aviv University

Rather than an inevitable and final end, death has been conceived in some societies at various periods of human history as a passage or threshold to another, often higher, realm of existence. This passage has been imagined in many cases as the transformation of spirited matter into dematerialized spirit that may manifest itself again in the material world. Scientific Spiritism is one such theory, established in the nineteenth century among French progressive elites in the context of scientific and social positivism and evolutionism. Imported to Puerto Rico and other Spanish colonies, it became enmeshed not only with other religious practices originating in Africa but also with new postcolonial existential dilemmas. In this presentation, I explore how the basic tenets informing the hierarchical world of the dead and the spirits of light and their relations to mortals have been reshaped and given new meanings in the everyday practices of Puerto Rican popular Spiritism. Ethnographic evidence—textual and photographic— identifies the various modes in which the dead and spirits manifest themselves in contemporary divination, healing, and possession rituals and account for the affective and visceral presence of the dead sometimes in convivial, sometimes in exploitative interaction with mortals. Further theorizing will engage the implications of “enlightened” necrographic theories and practices in contemporary Spiritist practices, especially with regard to the vitality of nineteenth-century secular Spiritist philosophies in late modernity within the context of neoliberal self-fashioning ideologies of material and spiritual self-improvement.

Tel Aviv University, P.O. Box 39040, Tel Aviv 6997801, Israel
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