Popular Occulture in Britain, 1875-1947

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Critical Studies

Abstract

Often associated with secret forms of knowledge revealed only to carefully selected initiates, occultism might seem fundamentally opposed to the openness of popular culture. Nonetheless, during the massive "occult revival" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which older forms of esoteric belief and practice-scrying, alchemy, astral travel, and ritual magic- were rehabilitated or invented anew, occult ideas and figures became the stuff of mass culture, featuring regularly in popular fiction, film, and theatre and permeating social movements and political debates. Our project seeks to explain how and why the occult became so central to the period's popular imagination. By focusing on the allure and reach of the occult in this period, our network aims to understand the relationship between popular culture, religious heterodoxy, and the public sphere more broadly.

The popular expressions of the occult revival can tell us much about the changing face of religious belief, literary taste, mass entertainment and public debate in the period of our study. Yet despite its crucial role as an index to changing religious, aesthetic, social attitudes, British popular occulture remains crucially understudied, often sidelined within humanities research to accounts of the reception of occultism within the avant garde cultures of modernism. Our network aims to redress this critical neglect by asking:

1) How and why did the occult ideas burst into the popular cultural mainstream during the period of our study?
2) What role did British popular occulture play in shaping ideas about social change, creativity, secularization, and the public sphere between 1875-1947?
3) What new perspectives on the stakes of popular occulture can be forged by bringing together scholars from across disciplines (history, literary, cultural, and periodical studies, theatre studies, religious studies) with librarians, curators, digital humanists, and non-academic holders of archives?

In asking these questions, we seek to break down the boundaries between esotericism and exotericism, between elite and the mass cultural forms, that have previously constrained studies of the occult revival.

To understand a subject as eclectic as popular occulture, it is necessary to take an interdisciplinary approach. The project brings together a range of scholars, curators, librarians, and non-academic holders of archives at three workshops, each focusing on a distinct interaction between occultism and British popular culture in the years between 1875-1947. The first will consider the encounter between the occult and popular fiction and entertainment; the second, the development of the occult public sphere through specialist periodicals and the reception of occultism in the mainstream press; the third, the contribution of occult ideas and proponents to popular social movements such as feminism, socialism, eugenics, and anti-imperialism. Academic participants will benefit from access to new disciplinary and methodological perspectives and the expertise of non-academic experts and stakeholders; curators, librarians, and archive holders will gain new angles on, and ways of contextualizing for the public, the rich popular legacy of the occult revival. All participants will benefit from the network's promotion and facilitation of international collaboration. The project will maintain a website and blog, enabling conversation to continue between workshops and extending the network beyond immediate participants; it will host visits to key occult archives and sites in Glasgow, Dublin, and London, thus encouraging knowledge exchange between scholars, curators, librarians, archive holders, and digital humanists; it will impact on exhibitions of occult archives and art; and it will produce an edited essay collection of selected workshop talks, constituting the first scholarly book to focus solely on the popular dimensions of the British occult revival.

Planned Impact

Our project will benefit users within and beyond the academy, including the general public. It will have impact on the following groups:

Curators and Artists: Francis McKee, Curator of Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts, and Marco Pasi, Religious Studies scholar and co-curator of occult art exhibits in Paris and Melbourne, will sit on the advisory board and participate in workshops; artist and RCA tutor Catherine Anyango and curator Pádraic Moore, although not official network members due to team size constraints, will attend workshops. The impact on arts professionals will come through knowledge exchange with the scholars and practitioners involved in the network. Moore, Pasi, and McKee both have curatorial interests in occultism and the visual arts; the workshops will impact on their interpretive strategy and on the planning of a pending CCA exhibition of occult-themed contemporary art planned for late 2018, after the cessation of network activities. The network will ultimately have impact on the CCA's visitors (approximately 320,000 a year). Anyango is a multi-media artist currently planning a drawing exhibition inspired by spirit photography and the history of psychical research; the network will impact on her selection and contextualization of source images, and thus on future viewers of her work.

Archivists and Librarians: The impact on archivists will be in the form of knowledge exchange with scholars and occult practitioners. Christopher Jossife, Philip Young (both London-based),and Julie Gardham (Glasgow) will attend their locations' workshops,benefiting from the expertise of participants who will themselves gain improved knowledge of occult collections. Network participation will allow archivists and librarians to understand the reach and relevance of British popular occulture, and consider ways in which their collections might be used in outreach activity to scholars and the wider public.

Non-Academic Holders of Archives: This project will includenon-academic holders of significant private occult archives who will benefit from exchanging knowledge with network scholars.Erica Georgiades and Kevin Tingay are members of the Friends of the Theosophical Archives project; R.A. Gilbert is a prolific occult historian and holder of archives related to various early twentieth-century British occult organizations; Leslie Price contributes to the editing of Britain's longest running spiritualist newspaper Light and acts as archivist for the College of Psychic Studies's Library; Malcolm McQueen manages the Glasgow Theosophical Society and its library. All four will gain new viewpoints which will impact on their resource users; academic participants will in turn benefit from their knowledge of private occult archives.

GU Special Collections Exhibition:To coincide with the Glasgow workshop, Special Collections at GU will host an exhibition of selected late nineteenth and early twentieth-century works from its landmark Ferguson Collection (comprised of over 7,500 works alchemical,occult,and related literature).This activity and its accompanying online Flickr display will create knowledge exchange between archivists and scholars and raise awareness of the University's collections among visitors.

Website/Blog:This will impact on the general public by delivering an accessible, non-specialist account of the network and its activities. By linking into social media, it will advertise the project well beyond the academy. The site will host synopses of the workshops and allow the public to register for workshops (where space allows)or view recordings of talks and participant interviews from wherever they may be in the world. Recorded talks and interviews will be uploaded to YouTube and thus rendered available to users who may not have navigated through the central project website. Given the global accessibility of these outlets to web users, their potential impact is enormous;the site will track visitors with a hit counter.

Publications

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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/N007212/1 01/09/2016 30/09/2016 £34,695
AH/N007212/2 Transfer AH/N007212/1 01/10/2016 28/02/2019 £32,970
 
Description The project is still in progress, and at the time of submission has hosted one of its three planned workshops-- a workshop on "The Occult in Popular Fiction and Entertainments," held at University College Dublin on November 25, 2016. Its most significant achievements include the hosting of talks by Professor Wouter Hanegraaff, Professor Richard Hand, Professor Nicholas Daly, Padraic Moore, Dr Patricia Pulham, Professor Darryl Jones, and Dr Steven Sutcliffe. All talks were recorded; most are in the process of being uploaded to our website. The event also included a closing round table on the subject of popular occulture which will help to seed future additional planned output of special issue proposal to the Journal of Victorian Culture. All speakers also took part in video-recorded impact interviews about their research interests in relation to popular occulture, which are in the process of being uploaded to our website. All award objectives for this part of the grant have been met, with the exception that some of our talk recordings were compromised due to microphone problems, and not all are useable. We are working to correct this problem for our next workshop, scheduled for for July 14 2017 at Birkbeck, University of London. The findings from this workshop will be taking forward in two way: 1) some of the speakers are in the process of extending their talks for publication in our edited volume The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947; 2) the roundtable discussion provided ideas and angles for future special issue proposal to the Journal of Victorian Culture.
Exploitation Route Talks and interviews from Workshop 1 will soon be live via our website, which also hosts blog posts on research-in-progress and archive information for researchers on this topic. Many of the workshop talks will be available in published form in our edited collection, The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.stir.ac.uk/popular-occulture-in-britain/
 
Description The project's initial findings on British popular occulture formed the basis for a screening and panel discussion of Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon, held at the 2016 Exploration Festival at the University of Glasgow on Friday, September 30, 2016.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Cosmic Movement Network-- Ben Gurion University 
Organisation Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Country Israel 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution As a result of my research on popular literary occulture, I was invited to join a research network on the Cosmic Movement, based out of Ben Gurion University in Israel. I was invited to present at the networks' symposium in Beersheba last year and to submit a chapter to an edited volume on the movement.
Collaborator Contribution This network is organised by Professor Boaz Huss, Dr Julie Chajes, and Asher Binyamin, all based at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. They organised the symposium at the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought, which ran from March 20-22, 2017 and was sponsored by the Israel Science Foundation. Huss and Chajes are now co-editing an edited essay collection dedicated to movement in which I, and all of they, have a chapter.
Impact Publication: Essay Collection The Cosmic Movement: Sources, Contexts, Impacts. Ed. Boaz Huss and Julie Chajes. Beersheba: Ben Gurion University Press, Forthcoming 2018.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Executive Board Membership 
Organisation European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism
PI Contribution As a result of my activities in the Popular Occulture in Britain, 1875-1947 network, I was nominated to the Executive Board of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, as cross-European network of esotericism studies researchers who hold bi-annual conferences, run training events for postgraduate students, sponsor regional and thematic networks, and fund awards and bursaries for researchers in the field.As a board member, I participate in the governance of ESSWE, contribute to postgraduate training seminars, vet funding applications, and help to establish and promote new networks.
Collaborator Contribution The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESWE) is a learned society established in 2005 to advance the academic study of the various manifestations of Western esotericism from late antiquity to the present and to secure the future development of the field. The ESSWE is an affiliated society of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) and a related scholarly organization of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Among the activities of the ESSWE are: Organising an international conference every two years and an MA workshop in years in which there is no international conference; Promoting further contact and exchange among scholars by organizing regional and thematic networks; Promoting scholarly publications, notably the journal Aries and the Aries Book Series; Stimulating research and education through prizes and bursaries; Promoting academic debate, interdisciplinary and critical approaches, and the application of a variety of scholarly methods; Co-operating with other scholarly associations in and beyond Europe; Encouraging the appreciation of the historical, cultural and intellectual significance of Western esotericism by research institutions, scholarly policy makers, and the general public.
Impact This organisation in indeed multidisciplinary, involving scholars from the fields of religious studies, sociology, literary studies, history, classics, music, and others. Its goal is to advance the academic study of the various manifestations of Western esotericism from late antiquity to the present and to secure the future development of the field. ESSWE pursues this outcome through a biannual international conference, a biannual thesis workshop for postgraduate students, through its journal (Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism) and newsletter, and through its travel bursaries and research awards.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Science of Ghosts Research Network 
Organisation Leeds Trinity University College
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I was invited to join "The Science of Ghosts" network, headed by Dr Efram Sera-Shriar. The aim of this group is to produce new research and forge collaborations that will lead to the submission of a large grant application on the subject of the scientific investigation of supernatural phenomena from 1800 to present. I gave a paper at the group's opening workshop in September of 2017 and participated in the subsequent workshop session dedicated to planning our first tranche of activities and funding strategy; I will also present a keynote lecture and the network's conference in the summer of 2019.
Collaborator Contribution The network is headed by Dr Efram Sera-Shriar and includes partners such the Royal Institution and the Society for Psychical Research. Contributors include Professor Roger Luckhurst, Dr Richard Noakes, Professor Owen Davies, Dr Peter Lamont, and Professor Bernard Lightman.Planned activities include a series of three workshops, some essay collections, a public lecture, and a documentary. An initial team of Luckhurst, Morus, Lamont, and myself will contribute to a Focus section of Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society, currently in preparation for submission.
Impact This networks brings together scholars from history, English literature, philosophy, psychology, and film and media studies. A first workshop, entitled "The Science of Ghosts, 1800-Present" was held at Leeds Trinity University of September 15 2017. Published outcomes are still in the planning phase.
Start Year 2017
 
Description "Popular Occulture in Britain Project Launch" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I introduced the "Popular Occulture in Britain, 1875-1947" project in a talk at the 2016 Theosophical History conference, held at the Theosophical Society in London on September 20-21, 2016. Presents came from all around the world, and included scholars (institutionally affiliated and independent) of religious studies, sociology, art history, English literature, media studies, and history and members of the TS; audience members included academics, postgraduate students, members of the general public and members of Theosophical, Anthroposophical, and New Age communities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description "The Case of Lucifer: Blavatsky, Collins, and Periodical Occulture in Late Victorian Britain." 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk at the Edinburgh Theosophical Society which introduced the project and used it to frame a discussion of Theosophical periodical publishing in the late nineteenth century, focusing specifically on H.P. Blavatsky and Mabel Collins's co-edited journal Lucifer. It initiated a lively series of questions and discussion among the audience of approximately 35 Theosophical Society members, many of whom reported a change in their understanding of Theosophical publishing and attitudes towards literary production as a result of the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description "The Occult in Popular Fiction and Entertainments" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact "The Occult in Popular Fiction and Entertainments," the first of our three project workshops, was held at University College Dublin on November 24, 2016. It featured 7 speakers from within and beyond the academy, including Professor Wouter Hanegraaff (Centre for Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam), Professor Richard Hand (Media Studies, University of East Anglia), Professor Nick Daly (English Literature, UCD), Padraic Moore (Independent Curator, Brussels, BG), Dr Patricia Pulham (English Literature, University of Portsmouth), Professor Darryl Jones (English Literature, Trinity College Dublin), and Dr Steven Sutcliffe (Religious Studies University of Edinburgh). We reach our attendance capacity of 30, with audience members including postgraduate students, academics, and film makers (Sean Martin). The papers and the closing roundtable discussion helped to shape the project's accompanying essay collection, on which we are currently working. Audience members noted on our response cards that the workshop had changed and improved their understanding of the topic. It also led to an invitation from Professor Hanegraaff to establish an "Esotericism and Literature" network for ESSWE (European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism). The event concluded with a reception and tour of local heritage site and Dublin Freemason's Hall.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.stir.ac.uk/popular-occulture-in-britain/
 
Description Explorathon Screening of "Night of the Demon" and Q&A on Occulture and British Film 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As part of the 2016 Explorathon Festival, Dr David Rollinson (University of Stirling) and I co-hosted a screening of Jacques Tourneur's classic 1953 British horror film "Night of the Demon," followed by a Q&A session in which I introduced the network and led a discussion about the popular reception of occult figures and ideas in twentieth-century British film and literature. The event sold out, and we had over 150 people in the audience. The audience questions raised useful perspectives for our project, and the event led to increased traffic on our FB page.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Popular Occulture in Britain Website, Blog, FB Account, and Twitter Feed 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact We have set up a website for our project which lists details about all team members, workshop programmes and paper abstracts, and regular blog posts from stakeholders in esotericism studies form within and beyond the academy; we are also currently in the process of uploading video interviews with speakers at the November workshop, along with audio recordings of their talks. These recordings have first been uploaded to our own channel on YouTube to extend their reach as far as possible. Members of the public and fellow academics have contacted us through the site to request further information about the project; we expect even more traffic on
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.stir.ac.uk/popular-occulture-in-britain/
 
Description Spirits in the Ether: Oliver Lodge and the Physics of the Spirit World 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in a panel discussion of Sir Oliver Lodge's attempts to reconcile science and spiritualism at the Royal Institution in London, held on February 1 2017. My role was to introduce the popular context for and reception of Lodge's belief in the other world through a discussion of his book Raymond, or Life and Death. We had an audience of approximately 150, consisting of members of the general public, psychic practitioners, physicists, engineers, and curators from the British Museum. The subsequent debate was lively and even rowdy at time, as different audience members expressed their varying delight and dismay to hear about this aspect of the Nobel Prize winner's career. We received inquiries about the project afterwards. The event host Samira Ahmed is in the process of pitching a larger documentary project on this topic; should it be funded, I will likely be invited to act as an expert interviewee.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.rigb.org/whats-on/events-2017/february/public-spirits-in-the-ether