Point of order: meta-logic in Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College

Robert Sheaffer recently reshared his review of Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College. As one might well imagine, Sheaffer is not very impressed by Vallée’s book. Sheaffer’s review is titled “Jacques Vallée’s Invisible College Teaches ‘Meta-logic'”. As student of philosophy and logic, the expression “metalogic” twigged my interest: Vallée’s being a programmer, I imagined he might well understand the expression in its mathematical or logical sense, and he recently spoke of the UFO phenomenon as a “metasystem”, so I was moved to look into just what he had written concerning the metalogical in the pages of his book.

Sheaffer represents what Vallée in fact writes on pp. 26-28 of the Dutton Paperback edition (1975) as follows:

Monsieur Vallee, computer scientist, astrophysicist, and member or the scientific board of Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies, has a unique way of looking at the universe. It’s called “metalogic.” For those or us not familiar with that term, he explains that it means quite the same thing as “absurd.” So should we protest that Vallee’s theories are “absurd,” he will correct our usage: they are merely “metalogical.” That’s the next level above common sense, just beyond the “edge of reality.” …

Sheaffer’s review continues in this vein, governed by this initial reading. However, Vallée seems to mean something quite other by the term in question. He writes: “What do we know of the nature of the communication that is reported to occur between human witnesses and the UFOs they perceive? I have earlier commented that, on the surface, such communication appears to be simply absurd. The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading; I prefer the expression ‘meta-logical'” (26). “Metalogical” therefore is clearly not “a unique way of looking at the universe [my emphasis]” but a way of understanding what witnesses report experiencing or having communicated to them by the occupants of UFOs. Nor does Vallée write that “metalogical” “means quite the same thing as ‘absurd'”: in fact, he claims the experiences and communications are not properly or most illuminatingly described as absurd (“The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading…”), but, better, as metalogical. Moreover, if we actually read Vallée’s words, nor does “metalogical” describe his own theories or speculations.

So, just how, then, might we understand Vallée’s use of “metalogical”? He provides a number of examples, but explains their significance in the following terms:

Situations such as these often have the deep poetic and paradoxical quality [my emphasis] of Eastern religious tales [Vallée means koans] (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and the mystical expressions of the Cabala, such as references to a “dark flame”. If you strive to convey a truth that lies beyond the semantic level made possible by your audience’s language, you must construct apparent contradictions in terms of ordinary meaning. (27)

Now, I’ll be the first to observe Vallée’s expression does him no favours in getting what I take to be his point across. I take him to mean, first, that, just like a koan or oxymoron, the UFO event deflects attention from its obscure, puzzling surface to something beyond itself: Vallée seems to be saying that, like these forms of expression, the UFO event is, in a sense, ironic or metaphorical: the UFO is not an extraterrestrial spaceship, but its appearing so is, to some extent, merely (ironically!) a vehicle (the metaphorical, figurative aspect of a metaphor) whose meaning is something other (what rhetoricians term the metaphor’s tenor); but more to the point, like a paradox, the event is in some respect reflexive or “meta”, at the very least in the way the metaphor’s vehicle must be grasped as a vehicle in order for it to be negated or transcended to some tenor.

The French critic Roland Barthes, in his aptly titled Mythologies, provides an apt example:

I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.

Following, I take it, the mathematical or logical sense of ‘metalogical’, Vallée is attempting to explain—and not for the only time in his writings—that the UFO event is not what it seems; its “high strangeness” (nonsensical conversations with the ufonauts or clocks without hands in their apparent spaceship) is the absurd, paradoxical content that puzzles and frustrates a literal-minded interpretation of the event in order to shift reflection to another level. Like the exemplary sentence in Barthes’ example, its significance is not its meaning; it operates at two levels. Whether or not we are persuaded by this view of the phenomenon is another matter, but at least we have arrived at a textually-warranted understanding of Vallée’s position.

Anyone acquainted with what I have written on Vallée, especially his last book and his keynote address at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, will know I’m hardly uncritical, but, at the same time, criticisms that fail to hit their mark do justice neither to themselves nor what they aim to skewer.

More on Vallée’s The Invisible College (its introduction, anyway) can be read, here.

15 thoughts on “Point of order: meta-logic in Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College

  1. I think the koan is both meta and para logical in that it actively strives to seize on the uncanny ghost-like “beyond words” experience (itself likely a glitch in the linguistic matrix, to reference a pop culture dinosaur) in order to properly “break through” the veil of metaphors.
    Can UFO testimonials be said to be attempting the same thing by and large? Or are they rather expressing an attempt at the opposite type of movement, i.e. from empirical chaos and sensory overload INTO the realm of metaphor? (which might place them closer to the logical, no matter how illogical the language employed)
    Although of course in the final analysis it is one and the same Janus-faced process, and perhaps this is what explains the confusion you’re referring to (moreso than the reviewer’s bad faith perhaps)

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    1. I think in general your take on how koans work is correct, but, as I write, Vallée’s own clumsy expression (mixing up a koan and oxymoron) does him no favours, so I do my best to salvage some sense arguably close to what he might be thought to be getting at!

      N.b. it’s not the reports that function metalogically, but what the reports report! But your point is well-taken, that the reported experience, being so absurd, on reflection, urges us to take it as pointing beyond itself (the Janus-faced process you remark).

      Vallée. Kripal, and Strieber all stressed this point in their talks at the recent Rice conference.

      As to that review: by chance I found another passage from Vallée’s book as egregiously misrepresented as the one I lay out/into…

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  2. Thank you for a very thoughtful analysis of what Vallee seems to mean by “metalogic,” including the delightful example from Barthes. We are in debt to Vallee for the enormous amount of fieldwork he has done in exploring this strange phenomenon. When I read his remarkable trilogy twenty years ago, I would at times be puzzled by his attempts to “explain” what had been reported to him by so many witnesses/experiencers. His overall point was that the “manifest” phenomenon (saucer, strange lights, etc.) had to be understood as occurring within an un-manifest process to which we have no direct access, and about whose intention/purpose we have no reliable clue, such that trickster-like deception seems to be a basic aspect of the whole shebang. But, to what end? It is difficult to conceive of a “method” that would enable even a sideways glimpse of such an end. We remain puzzled, curious, unsettled, and (especially on the part of eyewitnesses) awestruck. Perhaps a high-strangeness UAP event amounts to an instance of the sublime, that is, an overpowering event/experience that cannot be successfully brought under a concept, that is, understood according to our finite rationality.

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    1. Michael, thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you found some value in my wrestling with what Vallée might have meant in _The Invisible College_. You sum up, I think, Vallée’s position quite pithily.

      Recently my understanding of his field work has undergone another shift. On the one hand, I don’t doubt that there is a sizable data base, now housed at Rice University, which none of us will be privy to for fifty years. But what Vallée has made public is often of dubitable or inconsistent veracity, complicated by the fact that at times he is explicitly unconcerned with the truth of the reports, as he states in the Appendix to _Passport to Magonia_. I’m hoping work up something to say on the matter, which runs through his published work.

      I am quite taken by your invoking the Sublime in this context, something I haven’t done so far, given the the richness of the concept, from Burke, through Kant, to the present.

      Thanks, again, for piping in!

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