Despite the feverish belief in Disclosure heightened in some by the most recent flurry of institutional and media interest in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), the UFO phenomenon arguably remains a recalcitrant mystery. Given that that mystery has been so stubborn for over seven decades, it is unsurprising that some curious parties have turned to philosophy to help clarify if not resolve the matter.
I’m unaware just how much activity online brings philosophy to bear. It was Rich Reynolds’ attempted application of some of Sartre’s thinking that led to my first engagement with one of his ufological blogs (the current is UFO Conjectures). In terms of print culture, David J. Moore and Adrian Rudnyk have written books, Evolutionary Metaphors: UFOs, New Existentialism, and the Future Paradigm and The Assessment: The Arrival of Extraterrestrials respectively, that could be described as philosophical works proper. Many more authors draw on philosophy as part of their efforts. Jeffrey J. Kripal and Whitley Strieber refer to Immanuel Kant and Husserlian phenomenology in their coauthored book The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained is Real. Robbie Graham uses Jean Baudrillard to illuminate the ways the UFO becomes hyperreal through the reproduction of its image, cinematically and otherwise, in his Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies. And M. J. Banias (The UFO People: a curious culture) and George P. Hansen (The Trickster and the Paranormal) both seek to bring to bear the thinking of Jacques Derrida, specifically his first intervention into political philosophy, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International.
It’s Hansen’s reading and application of Derrida to the field of parapsychology that I want to address here, for reasons as synchronicitous as personal. During this most recent pandemic, Hansen’s online presence seemed to seek me out, whether a Zoom “graduate seminar” on his Trickster Theory or a recent interview (Part 1 here; Part 2 here). Moreover, I’ve been curious as to why his thinking seems to be held in such high esteem by those interested in such matters (he was referred to as “Guru Hansen” in a recent Facebook comment thread). And his characteristic, provocative haughtiness (or so it seems to me) when it comes to institutions, such as the academy, piqued me to look into what he had to say about the field of what he calls “literary criticism”, one I’ve been not unacquainted with for forty years. I can take encouragement from his own invitation in the Preface to his book that readers need not read it “front to back” (16) and that one might well begin “with a topic of personal interest.”
To be fair, Hansen devotes all of eight pages of his 564-page book to “deconstructionism” (sic) and only some paragraphs of those pages to Derrida. Though he does quote de Saussure, de Man, and Barthes, he seems to have drawn his understanding of what the cognoscenti call “Theory” from the secondary sources characteristic of the initial (very muddled) reception of structuralism and post-structuralism or those that are downright hostile, e.g., Page Smith’s Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (378) and David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (379). It would be a tiresome, thankless labour to comb through those eight pages, criticizing all the errors and misrepresentations. Should satisfaction be demanded, I will gladly meet the challenger on the digital field where we might wield our respective keyboards. However, here, let me address Hansen’s misreadings of two of Derrida’s texts, “Telepathy” (most recently collected in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume 1, pp. 226-261) and the aforementioned Specters of Marx.
Regarding “Telepathy”, right off Hansen reveals what the hermeneuticist would call his “prejudices” (Vorurteilen in German): he observes, “To [Derrida’s] credit, he at least briefly addressed the paranormal…” (379). It is easy to understand why someone with an interest in the paranormal reading a text titled “Telepathy” might assume the topic is parapsychological, but such a working hypothesis is less trustworthy in the case of a writer as original as Derrida; the educated guess that Derrida is venturing some thoughts on a parapsychological topic needs to be tested against what the remainder of that enticingly-titled text says. Hansen is at least honest enough to admit that “Telepathy” “is extremely odd”. For Hansen, Derrida’s text “is a confused hodgepodge of fragments from Freud (letters, notes, etc.).” Puzzled if not stonewalled by this perplexing text, Hansen turns to a secondary work by the translator of “Telepathy” Nicholas Royle, Telepathy and Literature: Essays on the Reading Mind: “It is frightening. Reading Derrida is frightening. As he [Derrida?] says in ‘Telepathy’, he scares other people and he scares himself.” Hansen concludes that
…grossly ignorant of the paranormal and its implications [,] [w]hen he ventured into that foreign territory, being oblivious to any useful scholarship, he lunged for the only thing he knew relevant: the antiquated writings of Freud…Obviously unsettled by what he encountered, he was unable to articulate it.
Nevertheless, Derrida’s article attests to the importance of telepathy. But the topic renders him almost incoherent; he doesn’t know what to do with it. Royle commented [sic] that “Derrida implies that a theory of telepathy, especially insofar as his ‘own’ text promotes the possibility of such a theory, is inextricably linked to the question of writing.” Royle proposed [sic] “‘Telepathy as a name for literature as discursive formation.” Derrida and Royle seemed [sic] to recognize telepathy as important for communication, but they were [sic] at a loss as to how to think about it. (380)
Hansen’s reading is extremely odd. Given that “Telepathy” is a collection of ten, dated texts, from 9 July 1979 to 15 July 1979, it is difficult to understand why he reads the text as a whole as “a confused hodgepodge of fragments from Freud” (my emphasis). (Perhaps Hansen means the fragments often quote “from Freud”, which they do). More importantly, Derrida himself makes clear in the first endnote that the ten texts were intended to be included in the first section of The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, whose first section, “Envois” is composed of the same kind of short texts, dated 3 June 1977 to 30 August 1979, which Derrida tells us might be considered “the remainders of a recently destroyed correspondence” (3) (obviously not “from Freud”!). It’s not that Derrida essays the topic of telepathy as a paranormal phenomenon, grasping at Freud for some belated guidance, but that “Telepathy” is a fragment of a larger text, composed itself of fragments, which (as is Derrida’s wont) probe or essay ‘telepathy’, especially as it is articulated by Freud (See note 7 to “Telepathy” in Psyche), as part of Derrida’s larger deconstructive project to think and write about language, writing, and literature in novel terms (e.g., telepathy) not indebted to the “metaphysical” inheritance, to (re)think ‘telepathy’ as “inextricably linked to the question of writing” and “as a name for literature as a discursive formation”. Little surprise, moreover, Derrida should allude to Freud so in sections of a book intended for a volume subtitled “from Socrates to Freud and Beyond”. It’s not that Derrida is “at a loss as to how to think about” telepathy, but that Hansen, apparently ignorant (grossly or otherwise) of Derrida’s work up to and including The Postcard (admittedly a difficult, perplexing book) and ignoring the context of the text he seeks to understand, shoehorns “Telepathy” into his own (parapsychological) categories to generate a skewed and unsurprisingly unsatisfying if not damning reading.
Hansen’s reading of Specters of Marx suffers from the same errors. He is adamant that “it’s very clear if you read Derrida” that Specters is “all about ghosts” in the paranormal sense. (Hansen makes this claim between the 12:00 and 14:00 marks of the second half of the podcast interview linked above). But, in this case, Hansen’s misinterpretation is even more egregious than in the case of the admittedly obscure “Telepathy”. Derrida states in the “note on the text” that precedes even the dedication that the book is an “augmented, clarified”, and supplemented version of “a lecture given in two sessions”, which “opened an international colloquium… under the ambiguous title ‘Whither Marxism?’ in which one may hear beneath the question ‘Where is Marxism going?’ another question: ‘Is Marxism dying?'”. Moreover, aside from being titled Specters of Marx (with its allusion to the first line of The Communist Manifesto), the book is subtitled “The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning [an allusion to Derrida’s work of the same name], and the New International [an allusion to the history of the workers’ movement]”. However original and startling a thinker, it beggars the imagination that on this occasion Derrida would deliver a plenary address with this title—on the paranormal.
A couple of passages from the book’s first part, the exordium, lend credence to reading Specters as an intervention, however unorthodox, into the field of political philosophy at a crucial moment in history (immediately following the collapse of “really existing socialism” and the consequent triumphalism of Western democracies that proclaimed “the end of history”) rather than an out-of-place discourse on the paranormal. Derrida first raises the topic of ghosts after the exordium’s opening paragraphs that probe the assertion “I would like to learn to live finally”.
If it—learning to live—remains to be done, it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between two, and between all the “two’s” one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost. So it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such. (xviii) [my emphasis]
Not only because it is taken out of context, but also because much of it defers (readers of Derrida will understand why I emphasize that word) its sense to what is to come in the remainder of the talk the passage is far from immediately clear let alone understandable. What some readers might be tempted to take as clear are the emphasized claims, that “the spectral is not” and “is never present as such”, reducing them to some banal statement to the effect “ghosts do not exist.” But, again, readers of Derrida will recognize these two sentences allude to Martin Heidegger’s project of the Destruction of the History of Ontology (deconstruction being the French translation of the German Destruktion). Heidegger famously posed again the question he claimed drove the philosophical reflections of Plato and Aristotle, “What is being?”. He argued that, from antiquity to his own time, that question had been answered as “Being is presence”. Whatever Derrida hopes to think by ‘the spectral’, he seeks to think this other side of that traditional, (what Heidegger and Derrida termed) metaphysical answer to the question of Being. The spectral is not, i.e., it is not to be thought as present. Moreover, the spectral, aside from never being “present as such” is not to be thought as “substance, essence, nor existence”, all names for being-as-presence at different moments in the history of philosophy. My point here is that despite Derrida’s deploying terms here translated as ghosts, spirits, and the spectral, any immediate understanding of them in a conventional (e.g., parapsychological) sense is hasty and even cautioned against by the way they are written about.
A relatively long passage on the facing page begins to maker clearer what ghosts and the spectral might have to do with the fall of communism, the consequent new world order, ethics (“to learn to live”), and politics.
It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it, from the moment that no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born. No justice—let us not say no law and once again we are not speaking here of laws—seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, with that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead. (xix)
Here, Derrida is attempting to think ethics and politics beyond the realm of the present, the living, both to do justice to those who have come before and those who are yet to come. This injunction, to “disjoin the living present” (the epigraph for the entire book is taken from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint”), is uncanny when precisely the question of what we owe future generations is an urgent matter. Being, here, is no longer present, for the dead and the to-be-born, like the spectral, are not. Specters of Marx, the way the history of philosophy forged itself over time linking the terms substance, essence, being, etc., thinks its way with spectre, ghost, spirit, as thought in Marx and Shakespeare and others, a manner of writing thinking familiar to readers of Derrida, one true to the differance (difference and deferral) that might be said to govern language, writing, and thought. The “specter” in Derrida’s title is a rhetorical vehicle, not a reference to a paranormal entity, however mysterious.
However gravely mistaken I propose Hansen to be about Derrida’s thinking, what I argue should in no way to be taken to denigrate, devalue, or otherwise call into question the remainder of The Trickster and the Paranormal or Trickster Theory in general. As I write above, I was piqued by the force of Hansen’s maintaining that “Telepathy” and Specters address paranormal topics, a dogmatic assertiveness I felt called for inspection. Ironically, it is Derrida who plays the part of a kind of necromancer in these texts, reviving the signs ‘telepathy’, ‘specter’, ‘ghost’, etc. from the rigor mortis of unthinking, reflexive everyday use (e.g., the paranormal one), inspiring their dead letters with a new spirit, sentencing them not to death but a new life and new meaning. But as Hansen would likely be the first to acknowledge, such uncanny work eludes quotidian understanding.