Some notes on A Conversation with Hussein Ali Agrama and Jeffrey J. Kripal

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…).

3 thoughts on “Some notes on A Conversation with Hussein Ali Agrama and Jeffrey J. Kripal

  1. Thanks again for writing a thoughtful reply to a topic that tends to attract allot of thoughtless commentators…

    I do want to push back against your critique of Kripal’s and Agrama’s criticism of the standpoint of “social constructivism”. I do agree that their treatment as you say is more or less unsophisticated, but surely their approach is not meant to be what we like to call an “internal” critique; rather, it seems on the whole to be “external” — that is, it looks upon the position of social constructivism from outside of constructivism itself, and hence it does not accept its basic premises. Or perhaps I’m wrong…

    In any case, I take it that they are simply making a relatively elementary point, that when it comes to the real of the phenomenon in itself, the core mystery as an actuality within our experience of nature or “being” (if you prefer), an event (perhaps in a technical sense) that interrupts the ordinary course of things, the standpoint of deconstruction is really besides the point. Or rather, it makes another point that misses the phenomenon in itself: certainly one might attempt to understand the manner in which the phenomenon is or can be “constructed” socially (how the phenomenon is made to *mean* in various ways, and how those meanings are a function of present or immediate past sociohistorical circumstances) … in short, how we might contextualize the phenomenon and its reception by various “believers” (and skeptics alike). But the question that Kripal and Agrama would like to soon pass through constructivism or Derridean deconstruction to get to, is the question of the stark ontological “independence” (if you will) the phenomenon has: the peculiar *thereness* of it. Here, the human being and human experiences are not so much constitutive of the phenomenon (for then it would simply reduce to a mere phantasm), as instrumental in its discovery, and revealing of the contours of its own being (I want to say almost its “Dasein”, but perhaps that’s jumping the philosophical gun). In other words, deconstruction and constructivism are at cross-purposes to the more (in my opinion) ontologically rich puzzle at the heart of the phenomenon. This thoughts lead me on to a couple of further observations vis a vie phenomenology that have recently occurred to me (actually, in the shower, that philosophical incubator!)…

    We might say that phenomenology as such was inaugurated by Kant, as he posed the crucial distinction (surely a long time in the making, that is, since Plato) between the “phenomenon” and the true reality that is, by its nature, a reality that excludes the human dimension entirely, that is wholly independent of the human encounter with the thing “itself” … and thus we have a “noumenon”, that which transcends the human engagement and appropriation of a thing (a thing just *there* on its own, from its own side). But it is important to point out the human- (or rational-being-) centeredness of this whole enterprise, for all that Kant is really saying is that what we can come to know about things is going to necessarily limited by the manner in which a rational being such as ourselves must appropriate it with the (intellectual/conceptual) architecture endemic to its own being: the “mind”, with its internal cognitive-epistemic structures. For Kant, it seems, we know only the juncture between thing and mind. How could it be otherwise? Yet, the thing itself (or things themselves: we should remember the peculiar status the “thing = X” has, such that we cannot even conceive it to be one or many, etc.) do nonetheless strike knower with a spontaneity that induces the “reflective” judgement, forcing the creative determination of the categories by which we then come to “know” an object as such (that is, as an object in the world, subject to then to the categories of determinative judgment). Part of the difficulty with Kant himself was that his system seems to be rather static: as if the mind has a set and fixed collection of preexisting categories that are supplied to “raw” experience, producing concepts, and eventuating with “knowledge”.

    This is surely wrong, and that there is both an historical-critical dimension to the categories themselves, and a story about their own genesis. That’s a perhaps long story in the study (or reconstruction) of Kant’s philosophy (and I’m only a perhaps idiosyncratic reader of Kant here, tho I like to think I’m influenced by Deleuze to some extent). But the point I want to make is that the being (at least from this sketch of a Kantian point of view) partly constitutes the meaning: it forces itself upon us, and we are forced to create a way of thinking it. We can partially think it with existing categories, but — and this is the crucial point — for some phenomena they stand so much outside of the existing categories that they force, as you rightly point out, a “reflective” judgment: the creation of a new category or mode of conceptualization.

    The thesis on the table is that this is what a “paranormal” phenomenon *is* (perhaps analytically): any phenomenon that challenges, then exceeds, then induces the creation of new categories by which to grasp it as it is (at least as it is for us). The simple question is whether there is a *there* to the paranormal (or the UFO more specifically). If it is “esoteric” by its nature, then it would seem that if there *is* a “there” there, it is a “there” that would not be amenable to intersubjective confirmation, or at least elude that mode of establishing its existence. But then, perhaps it is more like a rainbow: something that requires a certain standpoint or context within which the thing appears (and has its being). (But I submit that consciousness itself is *already* of this sort, so in a sense the very first “paranormal” phenomenon is the phenomenon of human consciousness itself … yet, this is of course a presupposition of Kantian critique, a thing which, while necessary, cannot itself yield its own independent being for us. Hence the paradox of Kant’s system, and the need to introduce the “transcendental unity of apperception”, prompting the early Schopenhauerian and Hegelian remedies.)

    Phenomenology, then, is in a curious position, is it not? And surely there is more to phenomenology than the “bracketing” of Husserl (you mention Heidegger, but perhaps we ought to explore the radically different phenomenology of Heidegger at some length?). Even here, however, let’s be careful: as I was trying to point out for the Kantian (phenomenological) move, even Kant would agree that there is a “there” to things, and one that, because of the sort of thing it is, prompts an epistemic response, as it were, in us. And I have tried to argue that in fact there is a dynamically historical dimension to the very origination of the epistemological architecture to “mind” that Kant doesn’t necessarily appreciate, one that is a function of those things themselves. Moving over the Husserlian “bracketing”, surely a similar claim can be made: that in order for us to even be able to bracket, there must be something to be bracketed, something there to be deprived to that we can study the manner in which is arises for us *as a phenomenon to be known*. In other words, the being/meaning distinction isn’t really what you are making it out to be, I think. The “bracketing” move does not then allow us to look at the “meaning” in the (external) sense of the historical, cultural, theological, etc. dimensions of the phenomenon (how it means for the experiencers of it); rather, the phenomenological gesture is one that allows us to more closely study how it is that the phenomenon arises for us in the first place, an understanding of the generation or origination of the phenomenon *as such*. If there is a complaint *here*, it isn’t that this reduces the phenomenon to cultural or historical context (unless we use those as the *only* ontologically relevant factors in the generation of the phenomenon, in which case we are surely guilty of a *petitio*!), but that it flattens out the paranormality (sorry about that word) as such, and prevents us from understanding its specific character of being … in other words, there would be nothing unique about it, for we would learn *just* the manner in which it arises for us as a phenomenon (and certainly it would be like *any other* thing in this regard!).

    I write as if I know what I’m talking about, but I am only writing what I think I know, and I’m likely to be wrong very deeply on many points (and certainly for lack of proper understanding on my part, which is my own responsibility, for which I apologize in advance). I appreciate your criticisms or critique, and most esp. when I get to learn better what I thought I knew!

    Thanks for reading, and (in advance) for responding.

    Mike Cifone.

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    1. Thanks for stepping in and up to the plate, again.

      I find it canny you observe the question(s) at hand “attract a lot of thoughtless commentators”—not at this blog, mind you; I’ve been very fortunate in that regard: not many comments but by and large cogent and welcome.

      The reason I twig to your observation is that from what I have heard from Kripal et al. so far, and let me underline the very limited exposure to their theses and arguments (I’ve read most of The Super Natural, the whole of The Flip, heard at least one lecture by Kripal on the superhumanities along with the talks I’ve commented on from the Archives of the Impossible conference) has been, if not thoughtless, puzzlingly wanting in evidence of a substantial acquaintance with pertinent scholarship, e.g., Agrama’s seeming unaware of the seven decades’ engagement with the religious dimension of the UFO phenomenon.

      I agree their rejection of social constructivism is external rather than immanent, but there are at least two considerations: what do they understand by social constructivism and is their target very substantial to begin with. From what I read in The Flip, for example, my more-or-less educated guess is that the position they dismiss is itself not a very robust one, a discourse they meet with in the halls of academe, much removed from the primary sources that gave rise to it. A similar phenomenon is found in English departments, where the initial muddled reception of Theory was only further confused as this reception was passed down generations of grad students, until you get what Kripal sets up and rejects in The Flip, hardly even a straw man of the work of Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, et al. And keep in mind, even what seemed so scandalously new in the ‘70s and ‘80s was itself neither shocking nor new in the perspective of post-Kantian thought (Andrew Bowie’s From Romanticism to Critical Theory and Manfred Frank’s What is Neostructuralism? make this abundantly clear).

      American philosopher Richard Rorty summed up a “social constructivist” position neatly when he wrote “Culture goes all the way down”, a remark I don’t think that entails any outright dissolution of the real, as Baudrillard’s thesis about there being no Gulf War was taken to make, only that, in so far as any experience is understandable or makes sense or is significant in the first instance, that coherence is underwritten by the social and not by any immediate grasp of the object. “To see through not with the eye” as Blake put it. Your remarking “deconstruction” is germane in this regard, as Derrida’s “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”, despite its reception history, most adamantly does not posit such a linguistic idealism or constructivism. So the question is more exactly what version of realism does one want to commit oneself to. It’s precisely both what is posited (“social constructivism’) and what it is rejected that makes me call out Agrama and Kripal and invoke a richer, more complex tradition that raises precisely the question of the meaning of Being, that does not dissolve it in “culture”, that clings closely to “the things themselves” (Husserl), avoids the aporiae of “appearance and reality”, yet, at the same, does justice to the (“social”) conditions for the meaningfulness of the world. We agree, I think, that Kripal et al. desire, it seems, a real in, ironically, the physicalist sense, a cosmos of self-identical objects that exists independent of observation, some version of the “ready-made world” that has come under withering criticism since Descartes: as opposed to Kripal’s apparent interpretation of “the death of God” (an expression that in fact originates with Hegel) as an atheistic statement, this “death” denotes in one respect the abandonment of the assumption of just such a “ready-made world”, access to the truth of which is assured by God’s having created both that world and the human mind that knows it, precisely the bridge Descartes required and that Kant rejects (the expression also denotes the failure of Reason to ground itself, but that’s another matter…). So, until I hear or read otherwise, I reject both the social constructivism Agrama and Kripal and company reject and the seemingly poorly thought-out realist position they might be taken to espouse.

      To your more general remarks: You do point out a number of paradoxes implied by Kant’s critical philosophy, problems that have dogged its reception from the get go (Beiser’s The Fate of Reason is an eminently clear mapping of this moment). Let me tell you a story: once upon a time, five of us got together, two anglophones, two German-speakers, and a francophone, all conversant in philosophy and related matters. We met to read through the Critique of Pure Reason, a passage at a time (as I did in an Honours seminar with Herbert Korte). We were stonewalled by the Transcendental Deduction, as we couldn’t for the lives of us come up with satisfactory account of what we read there, a passage that is precisely about the process by which the thing-in-itself imposes itself upon our passive sensibility and the process by which our essentially synthetic spontaneity works it up into a knowable phenomenon…This is my response to your first paragraph beginning “We might say…”

      That being said, it seems the paranormality of paranormal phenomena appears in at least two ways, not unrelated to competing readings of the Critique: does Kant seek to “deduce” our knowledge of Nature, i.e., defend Netwonian physics from Humean skepticism, or does he seek to account for our experience of the world (somewhat along the lines Merleau-Ponty will explore in his Phenomenology of Perception)? That is, a paranormal event, e.g., telekinesis, is paranormal from the point of view of, e.g., physics, because it remains inexplicable from the point of view of one or more natural sciences; in another regard, a strikingly precognitive dream is likewise paranormal because of its striking uncanniness (which is not, I think, separable from its synchronicitious meaning-fullness). My feeling is this is an observation we might agree on.

      I think that this way of looking at the matter brings us back to “social constructivism”: an event is paranormal relative to a normal (we might say that the paranormal is a Real that upsets and relativizes what seemed a staid, dependable real, or average everydayness…), whether what is for the moment “settled” in terms of physics or quotidian experience.

      Moreover, that there is a “virtuality” to the phenomena in question, i.e., that its very appearing at all in some respects seems relative to the observer (think of folks with the “second sight” who can see the Good Folk) or the state of the observer (Kripal makes this point, that extreme situations seem to evoke psi phenomena). (These are my responses to your “thesis on the table”…).

      When it comes to the “curious position” of phenomenology there are some clarifications in order, I think. What is bracketed in Husserlian phenomenology is, in one respect, the question of the being of the object, precisely the appearance/reality distinction, the thing is nothing more than the collation of its appearances (the sense I play on when I invoke the epoché for my own purposes); in another regard, what is bracketed is the naïve viewpoint, everything that is already “known” about the thing so that its essences might be grasped in their essentiality (I like to think of this as not unrelated to the ostranenie (“defamiliarization”) of the Russian Formalists: art, by suspending our perceptual reflexes, reveals the world in, at least, a new way: “art makes the stone stoney”). Does Husserl’s epoché then, counter to your argument, render the normal if not paranormal then in a sense uncanny (removed from our habitual ken)?(!). All that being said, I take your point re my invoking the phenomenological epoché, ironically, given how harsh I may seem to be with Kripal et al., isn’t quite true to phenomenology-as-a-rigorous-science: I think you make a very pertinent point quite well when you write ‘The “bracketing” move does not then allow us to look at the “meaning” in the (external) sense of the historical, cultural, theological, etc. dimensions of the phenomenon (how it means for the experiencers of it); rather, the phenomenological gesture is one that allows us to more closely study how it is that the phenomenon arises for us in the first place, an understanding of the generation or origination of the phenomenon *as such*.’

      That being said, I think my position re the quite legitimate “bracketing” of the question of the “truth” the phenomenon to better attend its meaning still holds. Consider the reception of the Resurrection. As a scholar of religion or theologian, it’s perfectly legitimate of me to study the ways the Resurrection has been understood (“literally”, in a demythologized form, Gnostically, etc.) quite independently of having to take a stance as to whether Christ bodily rose from the dead, a dogmatic response that is already taken up in my study of the Resurrection’s reception! To turn to what I’m in fact up to here at the blog and really want to get to poetically(!), I’d argue that the ideology-critical matter I’ve been able to generate here is a performative demonstration of the “truth” of the method.

      All that being said, I feel I haven’t quite answered your interventions as directly or fully as I should. But the conversation, happily, I trust, has only begun…

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