We are pleased to publish this review by Cristina Rosetti, a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on Twitter HERE.
Believe in Belief: A Review of Emily Ogden’s Credulity: The Cultural History of US Mesmerism
In the last year, the field of religious studies underwent a renewed interest in “presence,” largely due to Robert Orsi’s History and Presence. In this groundbreaking and theoretically significant work, he writes, “The study of religion is or ought to be the study of what human beings do to, for, and against the gods really present—using ‘gods’ as a synecdoche for all the special suprahuman beings with whom humans have been in relationship in different times and places—and what the gods really present do with, to, for, and against humans.” [i] Orsi’s work challenged scholars to take the religious claims of adherents seriously. Much like studies on secularism raise questions about the subject as much as the object of study, Orsi challenged the “modern” scholar to “believe in belief.” [ii] But, what about fraud? What do scholars do with falsity that, nevertheless, exerts a powerful force over people? What happens to these questions within a world that succeeded in the project of disenchantment? Enter, Emily Ogden.
Emily Ogden’s newest book, Credulity: The Cultural History of US Mesmerism, is the newest addition to the Class 200: New Studies in Religion series, published by University of Chicago Press, which seeks to publish innovative work in the field. The book is about Mesmerism, the 18th-century spiritual and healing tradition based on animal magnetism and named for its creator, Franz Mesmer. However, it’s also about much more. Rather than begin with Franz Mesmer, she begins with the commissioner’s report that debunked his claims. Animal magnetism, the clear force that pervades the body and produces healing and enchantment, did not exist. But, despite the assurance of falsity articulated by the commissioners’ report, people were still mesmerized at the hands of magnetizers. The cause was credulity.
Mesmerism was a grand orchestration of the placebo effect and exertion of power. It was based on the ability for the patient to sit in their credulity and their desire to be magnetized. This ability and desire did not end with the commissioner report. As Mesmerism traveled to the United States, the magnetizers harnessed the language of the report, and enlightenment generally, for their own ends. They acknowledged that they weren’t actually manipulating animal magnetism, they were manipulating human credulity. They were harnessing imagination. With this new language in full force, Mesmerism offered a means of quieting slave rebellion and controlling a burgeoning labor force. Occultic practice had the potential to become a tool of the powerful.
But, how did this happen in a nation that basked in secularism? Underlying the discussion of Mesmerism is the bigger question of modernity and how enchantment remains part of the discourse on secularism. In conversation with Bruno LaTour, Charles Taylor, John Modern, David Walker, Molly McGarry, and others, Ogden parses out what it means to be modern and how the occult was “a place where a secular age worked out what enchantment’s uses might be.” [iii] Of central importance is understanding what happens to enchantment when it is dismissed. As part of the new studies on secularism, Ogden does not ask readers how enchantment vanished in light of nineteenth-century secularism. As the field suggests, history is not a linear trajectory from enchantment to disenchantment. Rather she asks, “How was enchantment managed at the threshold of nineteenth-century modernity?” [iiii]
For scholars of Mormonism, this question is particularly useful. Mormonism is a “modern” religion that, much like Mesmerism, entered the American stage in the wake of enlightenment. It made claims to the rational and distanced itself from falsity. At the same time, it was not immune to accusations of fraud. Mormonism’s success is comparable to Mesmerism in that is successfully managed enchantment. However, unlike Mesmerism, Mormonism remains a dominant religion in the American religious landscape. Indicating its broader success in the project of secularism.
Ogden’s book, like the subject, is indeed mesmerizing. As seculality studies become more common within the field of American religion and Mormon Studies, this book is sure to become a useful resource for navigating the interactions between religion and a disenchanted world.
[i] Orsi, Robert A. History and Presence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 4.
[ii] Ogden, Emily. Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 31 and 64.
[iii] Ibid., 71.
[iiii] Ibid., 8.