Workshop: “Soul Catchers – A Material History of the Mind Sciences” (Princeton, February 2014)

Soul Catchers – A Material History of the Mind Sciences 

A History of Science Workshop at Princeton University – February 7/8, 2014

Organized by Katja Guenther (Princeton) and Volker Hess (Charité/ Humboldt), and jointly funded by the Princeton-Humboldt Strategic Partnership, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, and the History of Science Program

A soul catcher is a piece of incised bear femur decorated with animal heads. It is plugged with cedar bark on both ends, to catch and contain those ephemeral things that are often described by the term “soul” – a lost soul or an evil spirit. While the soul catcher today strikes us the work of superstition, and the product of an animistic culture, it resembles in both its form and function other, more mainstream, objects. Many technologies in the modern world, in daily life and in science, in the clinic and in the laboratory, might also in their way be labeled “soul catchers.” The psychoanalyst’s couch, the writer’s pen and paper, or the heavy machinery of scanners, processors, or EEG machines that populate our hospitals and research centers all try to catch that elusive object, which in the eighteenth- century was still called rather unproblematically the “soul.” Two hundred years later, the epistemic object caught in notebooks, photographs, film, PET scans, brain sections or electric circuits shows itself to be just as indeterminate as the soul caught in the hollow femur of the shaman.

This is not to downplay differences between these technologies of “soul catching,” which are indeed impossible to miss. Only a short glance reveals differences of complexity and scale, of cultural authority and plausibility. These differences also reflect many of the oppositions that structure the modern world: science versus superstition, mainstream versus marginal, and the finer differentiations between psychoanalysis, psychology, neurology, brain science, and criminology amongst others. But as the history of science teaches us, some of these divisions are new, and others have been constantly renegotiated over the past two hundred years. To use them to delimit the object of analysis would thus also pre-determine many of the results, and keep the research anchored to the categories of the present, upon whose genesis and constitution it might otherwise shed light.

For this reason, this workshop will try to lower the disciplinary boundaries that have traditionally kept these technologies separate, in order to examine the workings, problems, and futures of the technologies and the souls that they are catching. All these technologies confront the problem of how to use material objects in order to grasp something usually considered immaterial. Spirit photography attempts to capture traces of a departed spirit, a physical mark left on the photographic plate, as a sign of something we otherwise cannot see. So too, a PET scanner visualizes brain activity, representing “neural correlates” of depression, ethics, and more recently, love. Souls can be visualized, but they can also be written. The medical case history captures the mental disease of a psychiatric patient, the pen held by the writer of écriture automatique offers a point of access to the creative mind. Others have tried to grasp the soul through the expressiveness of the body. The measure of stress hormones in a laboratory animal allows us some access to its experience of stress, the lie detector is sensitive to minor vegetative changes in the body which supposedly can separate truth from falsehood.

While the workshop tries to break down certain distinctions, it also has the potential of providing new taxonomies. Would it be possible to divide up these soul catchers by the type of soul caught (emotional, pathological, spiritual, etc.)? Are the key divisions marked by the functions of the devices deployed (machines that make the invisible visible, that capture the ephemeral, that cultivate or produce certain mental states)? Or do the goals for which the catching process is deployed matter most (to analyze, to heal, to police)? 

*Please note that attendees are required to read pre-circulated papers prior to the workshop.

To register and access papers, contact Jackie Wasneski at

Click here for additional information.

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