Leon Ernest Eeman was born in Belgium in 1889 and served in the First World War between 1915 and 1918, which left him with injuries from a plane crash, dysentery and malaria. During his lengthy recovery in hospital, Eeman conceived of a healing technique that utilized what he called “human radiations” or electric currents present in the body, what we now know as bioelectricity. After nearly two years in care, Eeman moved to London and embarked on a lengthy period of research and development. He published a series of books, including Self and Superhuman (1929) that discussed his research on consciousness; an English translation of the French painter and writer Pierre-Emile Cornillier’s The Prediction of the Future, A New Experimental Theory (1947); and How Do You Sleep? (1936), which introduced some of Eeman’s experiments with bioelectricity and other exercises for developing healthy sleep habits. Finally, in 1947, Eeman completed Cooperative Healing, The Curative Properties of Human Radiations, which documented his research with approximately one hundred case studies testing both his Relaxation Circuit and Tension Circuit. Although Eeman’s work is characteristic of a movement in the healing arts, which sought to harness these subtle electric currents, outside of his writing, information on Eeman is scant. Other examples of these practices have been discussed recently as valuable evidence regarding how we have come to understand our corporeal connection with technology and energy. For that reason I decided to appropriate Eeman’s Relaxation Circuit in the form of a participatory installation involving a bio-synthesizer. Here I will recount my appropriation of his work after giving some historical context to his original study.
Dancing Frog’s Legs, Driving Forces, Auditory Nerves
After six years of research into the mechanisms of hearing in humans, quadrupeds and birds, the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani chose to pursue his experiments with electrophysiology. This led to his famous demonstration in the mid 1780s, starring a reanimated set of frog’s legs plugged into a leyden jar. Galvani proposed that animal electricity was what reanimated these lifeless lower limbs of a frog. This served as further evidence fueling a fiery debate that had ignited around vitalism in the sciences in which discoveries in physical science and physiology were challenging established ideas of what life is. It didn’t take long for these probes to find their way to humans, and Charles Kite was able to design the defibrillator. Galvani also went on to probe humans with much weaker currents in an early form of direct cranial electronic stimulation. Numerous instruments bore Galvani’s name, such as the galvanoscope, designed to detect electrical current using a frog’s leg, and the later galvanometer, which gave scientists the ability to measure electrical current.
In the 1840s, physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz connected a galvanometer to a frog’s leg to measure the speed that a signal travels through nerve fiber. This experiment preceded his work on The Conservation of Force (1847), which continued to poke at vitalist arguments. What would follow were questions about how different forms of sensory stimuli may vary reactions. This work, as it pertained to hearing, culminated in Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone (1863), which presented the body’s anatomically specific responses to the physical vibrations of sound, from the cochlea to the nervous system. In his popular distinctions between the physical phenomena of music and noise, along with his detailed descriptions of how sound materialized in the body energetically, through our complex nerve network, Helmholtz’s work made noise matter more.
The transformation of people’s audible environments as a result of the industrial revolution and urbanization is a story deeply connected to noise. The impact of noise on the body, specifically the nervous system, is an important historical relationship that has been brought to the forefront by recent scholars, including Karin Bijsterveld in her work on Mechanical Sound and “the public problems of noise” (2008) and James Mansell’s The Age of Noise in Britain (2017), which provides a useful history of the medicalization of noise specific to Britain in the twentieth century. Both of these works highlight the connections made between noise and the nerves, demonstrating how noise was understood to materialize in the body. Bijsterveld points out that “[w]hile industrial noise emission had largely been handled as threatening property and institutions, early-twentieth-century street noise was widely understood to endanger the minds and bodies of city dwellers” (Bijsterveld 2008: 92). Mansell emphasizes that people were marked more by unwanted noise than other sensory stimuli and that, “cumulatively, the effect of its enveloping sonic bombardment was thought to drain energy and perpetually overstimulate the body’s nerves” (Mansell 2017: 4). From the body to the city, these changing spaces of habitation were what Leon Ernest Eeman was responding to when developing his Cooperative Healing.
Eeman’s conception of space and the body was fluidic and energetic, facilitated by the concept of the ether, a material that was still commonly believed to fill space well after the introduction of Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1905. Like so many others, to Eeman, the ether existed as a material permeated by vibrations, magnetism, electricity, and psychic suggestion. Eeman found the ether useful in explaining a number of phenomena, namely “ether vibrations” and “ether radiations,” which he suggested were the frequencies for telepathic transmission produced by nerve cells. The German physician Franz Anton Mesmer proposed that he could manipulate the ether and energetic fluids of the body with what he called animal magnetism, using his hands and his eyes. He attracted a popular following well into the nineteenth century and was influential in the development of hypnotism. Mesmerists offered a cure for the energy depletion and “wasting” that seemed to come from modern lifestyles, which they proposed could be redistributed from mesmerist to patient. Although Mesmerism was scientifically criticized, it successfully captivated the popular mind in a way that prepared people for the electric medicine that would follow.
In the 1840s, studies of the nervous system prompted the well-known chemist and industrialist Carl von Reichenbach to investigate what he called “Odic” force, which became a grounding theory for Eeman’s cooperative healing (Eeman 1947: 317, 379). This was a vital energy or life force, which he claimed to consist of an energy akin to electricity, which radiated from living things and materials. In line with a more scientific understanding of energy, as the title of Reichenbach’s study suggested, Researches on Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization, And Chemical Attraction, In Their Relations to The Vital Force (1850) proposed that these forces had negative and positive polarities, which could be mapped on the human body from the head to the genitals and from the left to the right. These poles could be studied visually by a person “sensitive” to these forces isolated in total darkness with the subject. Odic force was presented as a colored “aura” which had breezy or air-like qualities that surrounded the subject, changing colors and temperatures at the respective poles. Sensitive observers of Odic force were posited by Reichenbach to be in a state of hypnotic or mesmeric trance. Reichenbach’s scientific focus did not discourage people from making cultural and spiritual connections with Odic force, such as relating it to the Chinese concept of “qi.” Additionally, Reichenbach’s work includes references to alchemy, including his choice to name the force after Odin, the god associated with mercury in Scandinavian mythology.
The domestication of electricity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century made this bodily exploration of electric current more available to the home consumer. Door to door salesmen offered electric belts that promised to increase male vitality. In London’s Pall Mall shoppers could purchase electric corsets, which were said to promote better health and a more attractive physique. These applications had wider ramifications: Carolyn Thomas De La Peña discusses the emergence of these “electrotherapies” and other technologies specific to the gendered body within the United States. She says that “directly transferring energy” from these technologies “to internal circulatory and muscular systems, mechanical, electric and radioactive technologies promised to bring the body along on the road to rapid modernisation” (Thomas De La Peña 2003: 3). Similarly, John L. Greenway discusses the history specific to electric medicine and connections to so-called “nervous disease,” with some particular attention paid to James Graham’s Temple of Health, which was established in London in 1779. Graham offered to treat people with “electrical aether,” using electrical apparatuses at his popular health houses. His work was an important local precedent to Eeman’s, bringing electric medicine into the public vernacular over a century before Eeman came to town (Greenway 1987: 46-73). Applied at the correct current, electricity appeared to offer a way to rectify social behavior, from emotional instability to sexual vitality. Taking social discipline [and legal punishment] to the extreme, it is even a way of administering the death penalty, which has been in use since 1890 in the United States.
In Modernism, Technology and the Body, Tim Armstrong explains how during this period, the body was widely conceived of as “the machine in which the self lived; the site of an animal nature which required conscious regulation” (Armstrong 1998: 2). Further discourses (which would be echoed in Eeman’s later writing) described the body as an electronic circuit with “energy flows” and “resistors,” positioning the body as an electric instrument that could be fine-tuned like a radio. Nineteenth-century city dwellers were commonly struck down by their new fast-paced life with ill health that manifested itself both physiologically and psychologically, most often as fatigue and exhaustion (with a list of other possible symptoms). This sickness was summarized by a diagnosis of “nervousness,” “nervous disease,” or “neurasthenia,” and its signature depletion of energy was often explained as a reaction to the innovations of modern life, transport, telecommunications, high speed machinery, and noise. In response, electrotherapy was offered as a panacea.