The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here. The previous post, Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian, can be read here.
Part II: Engaging with… (ii) Jeffrey Kripal
The next talk of interest to me was Prof. Jeffrey Kripal‘s “Why We Will Never Explain the UFO: The History of Apophatic Mystical Literature as Guide”. Kripal’s style of address, and often that of his writing, leans more to the personal and casual than the impersonal and formal characteristic of most academic language. This manner has its rhetorical advantages, claims hover between theses and opinions, and drawbacks, as the line of argument meanders and spirals in a way that evades summation and, to a point, analysis (however much Babette Babich might disagree). Kripal’s discourse finds a precursor and perhaps some legitimation in Heidegger’s later writings. For example, Heidegger opens “The Question Concerning Technology” thusly: “In what follows we shall be questioning… Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is a way of thinking.” Adorno and Lukács might be said to have expressed a similar sentiment when they observed echoing Hegel that “the truth is in the process.”
That being said, it wouldn’t be unfair to summarize and further reflect on the salient themes of Kripal’s talk. His (a?) central thesis seems to be that the UFO phenomenon transcends the disciplinary organization of knowledge into the natural sciences and the humanities, their presuppositions and methodologies at present being inappropriate to grasping the nature of the phenomenon. This point is made in several ways. If we oversimplify and peg the natural sciences as being concerned with objectivity and the humanities with human subjectivity then UFOs “violate, offend, or transcend the very divisions we make between subject and object.” The phenomenon is objective (e.g., “fighter jet videos, photographs, alleged metamaterials, apparent advanced propulsion methods, and landing marks”) and subjective (“close encounters, multiple and coordinated visual sightings, altered states of consciousness, visionary displays, and experienced traumatic or transcendent abductions”). As Kripal at another point says, “one can slice up the UFO phenomenon into the scientific, the humanistic, or even the historical, but one will never understand it by doing so [as] it bears a particular power to challenge or just abolish our present order of knowledge and its arbitrary divisions.” The UFO, then, is both/neither objective and subjective. To paraphrase, the UFO is not a simple object subject to explanation with dualistic logic, grammar, or science, but lies outside the present order of knowledge, whose secular and scientistic categories are insufficient. The UFO will never be explained, because “the UFO is not something that can be explained in our human, cognitive, sense-based ways of knowing. [It is possessed of] an ontology that is neither mental nor material but both at the same time.” As Kripal gnomically sums up his argument: “the radar is real, so is the revelation.”
Peripheral but not unrelated to Kripal’s main point are others by turns germane and troubling. After a fashion, Kripal localizes the phenomenon and his own relation to it. He engaged the topic first as a religious studies scholar in 2004, a perspective that catches sight of the topic first in the context of West Coast New Age culture. Indeed, Kripal makes the cryptic if suggestive remark that Kenneth Arnold’s “family history sounds very theosophical [Theosophical?].” He then observes the continental presence of the phenomenon—the cases of Betty and Barney Hill (in New England), UFOs over nuclear missile silos (in North Dakota), and the Chicago O’Hare Airport sighting—before underlining the importance of the American Southwest (with a special nod to Jacques Vallée’s recent research into the Trinity case), and affirming that “Indigenous communities are filled with UFO lore”. The more skeptically-minded will have their worst fears confirmed when Kripal speaks about the “stunning accounts” related in Hunt for the Skinwalker (or Skinwalkers at the Pentagon?), as he seems to accept all these reports and stories at face value.
And it’s at just this point (or what I’m tempted to term a brisure) that Kripal’s position becomes troubling. Referring to Hunt for the Skinwalker or Skinwalkers at the Pentagon, Kripal quotes one of its authors, Colm Kelleher, as theorizing that “the human witness [is] a kind of biochemical readout instrument,” which Kripal restates: “the most sophisticated piece of technology on the planet to detect nonhuman or superhuman presences…is the human body, brain, and being.” To position the human body in this way is both promising and problematic, as the body is the site where object and subject intersect. Considered as a “biochemical readout instrument” or “sophisticated piece of technology” the body is a being among other beings, an object, subject to natural scientific and forensic investigation; as a source of experience and subsequent testimony (“anecdotes”), the body is a subject. Kripal is at pains to defend the value of the subjective, experience and anecdote, over against its dismissal by the natural sciences. He protests that “every human experience after all is technically anecdotal…There is no science or mathematics, no literature, language, art, or religion, and there is certainly no UFO without that human subject… Why are we not talking about the experiences of those human witnesses?”
The obvious answer to Kripal’s rhetorical (?) question is given by Kripal himself: “the UFO is not something that can be explained in our human, cognitive, sense-based ways of knowing,” i.e., by means of the natural sciences and their physicalist or positivist presuppositions. In the absence of indisputable or at least sufficient objective physical or forensic confirmation (and the cases, “accounts”, and “lore” Kripal submits are all questionable in this respect), reports of experiences can taken as only reports of experiences. From the subject-centred, humanistic side, such data is legitimate and significant as sites of meaning, a meaning whose truth-value is shielded from the dubitable or ungraspable (to be charitable) physical evidence, because it is methodologically bracketed from the question of the cause of the experience so that that meaning might be studied for its own sake. This methodological move, however, seems itself to be suspended by Kripal in his taking the cases he submits at face value as factually true.
And it is here that Kripal’s avowed agnosticism (the explicit “first thesis” of his talk is that “No one is expert here;” no one can claim to know) begs for a more explicit conceptual elucidation. The contradiction I outline above (the UFO is objectively dubitable, but subjects’ experiences can claim according to Kripal more than strictly subjective, anecdotal truth) is a contradiction only within disciplinary or epistemological terms that Kripal would suspend (the UFO phenomenon challenges or abolishes “our present order of knowledge and its arbitrary divisions”). However, in one regard, his thinking here is caught in the aporia of the deconstructive logic (in the rigorous sense) of the violent hierarchy that determines his discourse. The natural sciences with their knowledge of objects is set over against the humanistic disciplines and their grasp of the meaning of experience for human subjects; the present order of knowledge privileges the former term, epistemically, institutionally, etc.; Kripal, however, would at least seek to elevate the latter term: the knowledge of the object is itself grounded on the subject: ”There is no science or mathematics, no literature, language, art, or religion, and there is certainly no UFO without that human subject.” But, at the same time, attempting to legitimize the subject-as-body, as “biochemical readout instrument” or “sophisticated piece of technology”, the human subject as a legitimate source of data is grounded on the physical, medical and forensic, sciences. Kripal perhaps intuits this double-bind when he says, “Whatever [the phenomenon] is it simply does not behave according to our rules or philosophical assumptions—any of them.” But even this thesis itself needs be defended and demonstrated, a legitimation that itself can only occur within the context of the assumptions Kripal would suspend. More charitably, Kripal might be said to be positing that the UFO phenomenon negates our present order of knowlege. In the first place, the phenomenon as such is possessed of an indubitable positivity; it is objective and subjective, as Kripal says. However, as a mystery that resists being understood, explained, or “explained away” (at least for the moment), either by, e.g., some version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis or as eventually some new, e.g., plasma, phenomenonon, the UFO resists being known. This negation of our philosophical and epistemic assumptions demands in turn a “negation of the negation”, a reordering of our knowledge that would prove sufficient to give us some knowledge of the phenomenon, a reordering presumably the other side of what Kripal takes to be the categories of “objective” and “subjective”.
But what persistently bothers me about Kripal’s positions is their apparently shallow philosophical foundations. To transcend the “arbitrary” disciplinary articulation of “our present order of knowledge” demands more than merely leaving that knowledge formation behind. On the one hand, the rhizomatic dispersal of the modes of “scientific” knowing (and here I include all “sciences”, natural, social, and humanistic) isn’t “arbitrary” (however concretely dogmatic it might become…): the division of investigative labour is precisely the practice that has underwritten the expansion of knowledge since the Scientific Revolution. On the other, the countermovement to both this dispersal and the ascendancy of the natural sciences is one long underway. The modern (Humboldtian) university originates in the attempt to unify this dissolution of the unity of knowledge. Moreover, “interdisciplinarity” has been at the heart of those projects—from Jena Romanticism and German Idealism to Deconstruction and the present-day academy—that take up the self-critical spirit of the Enlightenment. The defense of “experience” finds its first hero in Wilhelm Dilthey at the end of the Nineteenth Century and an ally in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and latter- and present-day phenomenologists, and the philosophical and sociological project to unify what the university departments have sundered is undertaken by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas, respectively. This is all to say that, in one regard (and this point was made in one of the responses to Kripal’s talk), all objects, not just unidentified flying ones, are dissolved into their various possible aspects by the sciences. At the same time, the problem of how to negotiate this dissolution and to recover a unity that is assumed by the sciences and experience is one that has been worked on for centuries and must be worked through. Kripal’s point that the UFO demands novel thought and investigation is therefore well-taken, but knowledge demands a reflexive and transcendent moment, a self-critical reflection that opens a way beyond the aporiae of the incongruity between modes of knowledge and their object that block progress. It is my thesis that there exist not inconsiderable philosophical resources, conceptual and argumentative, that have yet to be investigated and exploited.
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