In the wake of the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, the organizers have released recordings of webinars aside from the plenary sessions that were publicly (if remotely) viewable during the conference itself. I’ve already shared my responses to Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address (here) and Whitley Strieber’s and Diana Pasulka’s plenary sessions (Strieber here and Pasulka here). In one of these webinars (here), as the conference YouTube channel puts it
Hussein Ali Agrama, associate professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Chicago, join[s] Jeffrey J. Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Studies in the Rice University School of Humanities, on Feb. 24, 2022, for the third of three webinars in advance of Archives of the Impossible conference…
Agrama’s and Kripal’s conversation is, by turns, compelling and exasperating, but particularly pertinent to one vector of thinking that goes on here at the Skunkworks (that Mike Cifone in a not dissimilar way questioned: see his comment to this post).
The conversation begins and ends with the academic response to the challenge presented by the UFO phenomenon. Agrama relates he is a ufological “newbie”, having begun researching the topic in 2015. Having concluded that “by all possible yardsticks of reality”, as they used to say, “Flying Saucers are real!”, he presented a conservative, probing talk on the topic at Berkeley, which was reacted to with overt anger and tactful, enthusiastic interest.
Aside from such social challenges to even fielding the question in academe is a methodological one. Along the lines of a fairly consistent sentiment expressed in all the publicly-viewable talks at the conference, Agrama remarks how the UFO phenomenon is mixed with what he terms “proximate enigmas”, implying that UFOs are an aspect of a more general problem calling for, what I’ve termed (though I hardly coined the expression), a Unified Field Theory of the Paranormal. The paranormal considered in this way exceeds the conceptual and investigatory tools of any one discipline, humanistic or natural scientific. Agrama and Kripal infer from this character of the problem that it demands we abandon these tools for, imaginably, new ones.
Here, the conversation touches on a proposal made here, that a phenomenon that does not fit existing categories calls forth new ones, along the lines Kant describes in his Critique of Judgement, i.e., a phenomenon that cannot be classified by means of what he termed determinative judgement demands it be grasped, like an aesthetic object, by means of our capacity to form reflective judgements. More radically, however, it strikes me Agrama and Kripal (due to a persistent historical shallowness) overlook the calls made by the Jena Romantics for an open-ended, experimental, encyclopedic interdisciplinarity, embodied after a fashion in the figure of Claude Levi-Strauss’ bricoleur and championed by Jacques Derrida and others of his moment.
Nevertheless, Agrama and Kripal probe deeper the “challenges to science” posed by the phenomenon. Agrama relates an anecdote from Jacques Vallée’s Messenger of Deception. Vallée and an intelligence agent are discussing the phenomenon; Vallée presses that it is a scientific problem, but the agent pushes back that it might be, instead, an intelligence problem. Agrama and Kripal focus on the difference between the two approaches but pass over a more essential one: however mysterious a matter, from a scientific point of view the matter lies open to inspection however much ingenuity and effort it might yet demand to be investigated, but from an intelligence point of view the matter is duplicitous, intentionally deceptive. One is tempted to observe at least that the sciences have in fact developed methods to observe and research intelligent beings, human and otherwise, eager to escape detection or dissimulate if observed, but the problem is deeper and arguably one of method. In the sciences, the object is in principle exoteric, open to investigation by anyone, provided they have access to the necessary training and instrumentation; the paranormal “object”, however, is esoteric, not given to being observed in controlled situations nor by just anyone; for whatever reasons only some human beings are given to observing the phenomena in question, whether by birth or fiat of the phenomenon itself. Alluding to the experience of one remote viewer and the way his training altered his quotidian perceptions, Agrama wonders whether one challenge to studying paranormal phenomena is not precisely a problem of perception. Whether or not an exoteric training might be developed to solve this problem remains an open question.
At this point the conversation becomes problematic. Kripal addresses a number of questions to Agrama, the first that of whether any research had been done into a causal relation between UFOs and religion. The matter of the stigmata of St. Francis is raised, but the best Agrama can do is point to Diana Pasulka’s American Cosmic. To any scholar however casually acquainted with the topic, Agrama’s answer is astonishing. Scholars of religion have researched the religious dimension of the phenomenon for decades. One can point to the classic study When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (first issued by the University of Minnesota Press, 1956), the 1995 anthology The Gods Have Landed, published by the State University of New York Press and edited by James R. Lewis (whose contributions to the field cannot be praised enough), Susan Palmer’s Aliens Adored: Raël’s UFO Religion (Rutger’s University Press, 2004), or Stephen C. Finley’s In and Out of this World: Material and Extraterrestrial Bodies in the Nation of Islam, forthcoming from Duke University Press, among many, many others. Moreover, the Christian reaction to the phenomenon is voluminous and the cognoscenti know the phenomenon emerged from a vaguely Theosophical matrix, e.g., in the books of George Adamski. Agrama somehow manages to pass over seventy-five years of relevant literature, primary and secondary.
More foundationally, Agrama and Kripal readily agree with the contention voiced during the conference itself that “the ground of being is not just the social”. This statement is deployed to at least two ends: first, as a criticism of dogmatic social constructivism in the social sciences and the humanities and, second, to open an ontological space for the paranormal. However, are our interlocutors ignorant of the more recent tradition that stems from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1926) that takes as its theme the question of the meaning of Being and the path Heidegger’s ontology was to take, let alone the older trajectory of thought that springs from Friedrich Jacobi and the Pantheism Controversy of the 1780s in Germany? If they weren’t, they’d know Jacobi had already pointed out the essential difference between nature as explicable by reason and science and the sheer, brute, opaque fact that there is anything at all to be explained, a matter pursued by others down to Heidegger, for whom Being denotes at least Jacobi’s “existence” as well as the fact that the world is intelligible at all, a spontaneous understandability grounded only in part by “society”.
Finally, it’s as if Agrama and Kripal had clairvoyantly read one of the more recent posts here Just what’s up at the Skunkworks (Skunkworksblog, that is)? for they explicitly attack those who would bracket the question of the being or nature of the phenomenon from its meanings. They say that such an approach would be laughable were it applied to, for example, radiation, that such a methodological strategy is “a cop out” to avoid the challenge to official ontology posed by the phenomenon. There are any number of responses. It is incumbent upon such believers to demonstrate the unquestionable reality of the phenomenon (which is hardly of the same status as “radiation”). As I observe in the post above, this is a debate that is exhausting as it is endless and irresolvable. Moreover, I state
anyone who has taken the lessons of deconstruction (namely those of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man) to heart will understand, maintaining an airtight opposition between strictly “negative” critique (that is, it does not posit any theses of its own about the facts of the world in opposition to the positions it scrutinizes) and the demand to take some position with regard to the truth of things is ultimately unsupportable.
In all fairness, this is a response I don’t expect Jeffrey Kripal, at least, to appreciate, if his very tenuous grasp of Derrida as evidenced in The Flip (see Chapter 4. The Symbols in Between) is anything to go by. Finally, I have and will argue at length that the reception of the phenomenon as “a visionary rumour” or “modern myth of things seen the sky” is compellingly revelatory of that collective unconscious called by historical materialists ideology, which arguably smooths the way for so-called “advanced society” to continue upon its eco- if not sui-cidal way. And concerning that reality I wager Agrama, Kripal, and I would hardly disagree.
Addendum: As readers might imagine, the matter of bracketing the meaning of the phenomenon from the question of its being, reality or nature is hardly a new one here. Related posts that develop the question at greater length if not depth are, the earliest and longest (Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO), a slightly abbreviated version of this first (On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”), and the most compressed version (Notes towards a prolegomenon to a future ufology…).