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…).

Zooming in on the Archives of the Impossible Conference: Day Three (5 March 2022): Diana Pasulka, “Mathematicians and Artists: The New Sites of UAP Field Research, or ‘Toto, We’re Not in New Mexico Anymore’”

With this commentary on Diana Pasulka’s plenary talk I write my final post on the Archives of the Impossible Conference. You can read my take on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address here and my reflections on Whitley Strieber’s talk here.

Diana Pasulka’s talk was meagre, for anyone already familiar with her American Cosmic and who has followed her career since, being, as it was, an overview of precisely this work, helpfully bringing it into focus in a way that contextualizes her present research.

She began with a resumé of the years 2017 to 2021, punctuated by her submitting American Cosmic to Oxford University Press and the U.S. government’s official confirmation of the reality of UAP, prepared for by, first, the 2017’s New York Time articles, then growing media interest. In the context of this most recent official confirmation of the reality of the phenomenon, she spotlights “the visible college” of researchers—Jeffrey Kripal, Brenda Denzler, Gary Nolan (“James” in American Cosmic), Karla Turner, Jacques Vallée, Whitley Strieber, and Greg Bishop, among others—before dovetailing to the main topic of her lecture.

The mention of a visible college leads easily to a discussion of the “Invisible College”, in both senses: of that one described in American Cosmic and that other, historical forerunner that inspired J. Allen Hynek to recoin the expression that Jacques Vallée later used as a book title. This original college, exoterically understood to refer to what became the Royal Society, Pasulka links to Renaissance esotericism, claiming that some members of this original Invisible College were initiates of the Rosicrucian order. (The fuzzy way this claim is made and developed—characteristic of Pasulka’s discourse—leaves one wondering if she had consulted Frances Yates’ authoritative The Rosicrucian Enlightenment…).

This introduction of esotericism brings us to the heart of her talk, the contention that some researches, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, such as the late Kary Mullis, American Cosmic‘s “Tyler”, and Jack Parsons, all used or use various esoteric practices to which they attribute their ideas, discoveries, and breakthroughs, said practices being a means whereby they access some nonlocal realm of pre-existing knowledge, comparable to the Akashic Records of Theosophy. Pasulka, somewhat frustratingly, offers no formal example of what these practices might be, but adds that corollaries include entheogens (as proposed by Aldous Huxley), and, most importantly, technology, the focus of her latest research, including the figure of Iya Whiteley.

That Pasulka’s research has revealed a kind of spontaneous, shared spiritual practice and perhaps family of beliefs among the STEM elite is surely curious and a promising vein of research for a religious studies scholar. What is frustrating is Pasulka’s methodological tact. As a scholar of religion, like the ethnologist, one does not judge the subjects of one’s study, but Pasulka often leaves one with the impression that she has, as they used to say, “gone native”, that she actually shares the beliefs of those she studies. As frustrating, and perhaps not unrelated, is her not presenting either a history of these ideas or competing hypotheses. For instance, speculations concerning the reality of the known go back to the philosophy of mathematics at the turn of the century, when the question of the nature of the certainty of mathematics split thinkers between those who attributed it to mathematics’ being a purely syntactic system and those who posited that numbers were “real”, in the manner of Platonic Forms. Given that she is studying what more mundanely might be termed a species of the scientific, creative method, the means whereby scientists come up with ideas (a famous example is the dream that led to the discovery of the form of the benzene molecule), one might rightly wonder what other historians and philosophers of science might have to say on the matter.

For my part, I am struck by a kind of naive “romanticism” in this fascination with the figure of the scientist-as-hero, as if scientific discovery is the work of lone genii, apart from the society that underwrites their lives and research as a necessary condition, and independent of the arduous labour of actual, often fruitless research and subsequent confirmation of experimental findings. As unquestionably interesting as Pasulka’s subject of research is, once it’s scrutinized in this more thorough-going, comprehensive manner, its significance for, at least, the history and philosophy of science is acutely contextualized. And such considerations are apart from the more pressing matter of the need to reflect on the way technoscience frames its object (as Heidegger reminds us in his Essay Concerning Technology), an urgent question in the midst of an ecological crisis and under the cloud of the threat of nuclear war….

Zooming in on the Archives of the Impossible Conference: Day Two (4 March 2022): Whitley Strieber, “Them”

Here, I continue my commentary on the plenary sessions of Rice University’s Archives of the Impossible conference. My notes on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address can be read, here, while those on Diana Pasulka’s plenary address are viewable, here.

Friday, I missed Leslie Kean’s plenary talk, “Physical Impossibilities: From UFOs to Materializations”, but I was eager to catch Whitley Strieber’s, not only because of his reputation, but moreso because he has co-authored a book with Jeffrey Kripal, The Super Natural.

Strieber, being a writer, delivered a relatively eloquent talk, in a mellifluous, cadenced voice. He began, after a series of gracious, thoughtful acknowledgements, confirming the notion Jeffrey Kripal laid out yesterday, that the paranormal is a unified field, underlining the unity of the Visitor experience and the mystery of death, stressing the phenomenon demands to be approached “holistically” and interdisciplinarily.

The body of his discourse was the presentation and analysis of one of the many letters he and his wife received in the wake of Strieber’s publishing Communion, a large number of which are now housed in the Archives of the Impossible. Strieber proposed to read the story the letter related according to the myth of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur: the role of Theseus is played by the family who experience an encounter with the Visitors; the Labyrinth is our dark, confused world; the Minotaur is fear and anger; Ariadne is the consciousness behind and controlling the Visitor experience; and the thread, the process of human perception, the way it domesticates the wildly strange, tempering fear with curiosity. He managed to unfold the letter’s account according to his proposed schema in an easy to follow manner, however unconvincing….

What struck me was Strieber’s stressing how the Visitor experience “is a communication of a kind”, related to the myths of all cultures. Indeed, it’s because Strieber perceives this link between the experience and myths that he ventures to read the letter the way he does, going as far as to claim that an acquaintance with myth is necessary to understand Contact and “the grammar of Communion.” In this regard, Strieber seems to echo Vallée’s contention in his keynote address, that the phenomenon “is not a system but a metasystem”. Someone not unfamiliar with the developments of last century’s literary theory might say it is a language (myth).

Ironically, however much Strieber is at pains to stress the pertinence of our mythological inheritance in understanding Contact, his own acquaintance with the myth he deploys is weak. It’s not the case that Ariadne saves Theseus from the Minotaur by guiding him out of the Labyrinth with her thread, but that her thread enables him to navigate the Labyrinth in order to slay the Minotaur and emerge again. Strieber is correct that Theseus abandons Ariadne after his exploit, but says that she weds Dionysus “the god of joy” and thereby becomes holy, a becoming holy (whole, complete), Strieber maintains, being the “inner aim of Contact”. But by what warrant does Strieber identify Dionysus/Bacchus with “joy”?…

Not only does he betray only a loose acquaintance with the myth he would employ, but, I would argue, he confuses myth with myths. That is, if the Visitor/Contact phenomenon operates at a mythological level, from the point of view of structural mythology, it is not because of how its various narratives might echo other narratives, but because of its structure, which is that of myth. Myth, like language, is a form not a substance. He does seem to unconsciously grasp this approach, when he draws attention to various actions in the letter he analyzes (and, no!, he does not “deconstruct” it!) when he remarks various actions that occur along the vertical axis: one Visitor leaps from a water silo, they appear in the trees, the family ascends to the second story of their home to get a better view of the beings, etc., an observation typical of a structural analysis of myth or narrative. Strieber’s exegesis of the letter is illuminating but, ironically, despite the allegorical machinery he brings to bear….

One must wonder, too, if he were present during Vallée’s presentation and his warnings concerning the truths intelligence agencies relate, as Strieber at one point emphasized how the U.S. government recently admitted that the leaked Tic-Tac and Gimbal videos depicted vehicles of unknown origin….

So, like Jacques Vallée’s keynote address, Whitley Strieber’s contribution, though smoothly delivered and containing some provocative insights, fails to persuade because of, ironically, its weak grasp of essential aspects of its own argument, here the very myth he would use to construct his discourse, if not mythology as such itself….

Zooming in on the Archives of the Impossible Conference: Day One (3 March 2022): Jeffrey Kripal and Jacques Vallée

This weekend, March 3-6, Rice University is hosting a conference to inaugurate its Archives of the Impossible. Like hundreds of others, I have Zoomed and will Zoom in to catch some of the plenary sessions held during the event. What follows, here, are my impressions of and thoughts on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address. (You can read my notes on Whitley Strieber’s talk, here, and Diana Pasulka’s, here). As my response is drawn from what I noted down during their talks, what I remember, and what I’ve slept on, it will be schematic and idiosyncratic but, hopefully, no less substantive for all that…

Opening Remarks: Jeffrey Kripal, “On Radar and Revelation: Connecting the Dots (and One Another)”

For all its humble brevity, Kripal’s address commencing the conference’s proceedings didn’t lack in insight or imagination.

Connecting the dots in his talk’s title, he observed “It’s all connected”, namely all those phenomena generally collected under the concept of the paranormal: UFOs, Near Death Experience, Psi phenomena, ghosts and hauntings, cryptids, etc. With this idea, by pleasing synchronicity, Kripal addressed some recent thoughts ventured here with regard to UFOs and ghosts and the essential, perhaps irresolvable, mystery of Fortean phenomena. This idea of a “Unified Field Theory of Paranormal Phenomena” is hardly new, but it seems somehow noteworthy Kripal opens with this idea…

In my reflections on the social significance of the Fortean, I propose that “the Fortean realm functions as a critique, a marking of limits or boundaries, to a form of knowledge whose demonstrable power at the same time puffs it with a monomania that causes it to claim a monopoly on knowledge.” Kripal, too, with reference to the scholarship of Stephen Finley, observes all too quickly that the paranormal plays a role in society. I’ve touched on this very compelling topic, how, on the one hand, the paranormal reveals “a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation,” while, on another, the UFO mythology is appropriated by more reactionary forces in society. The place or function of the paranormal in “Western” society, at least, is, as I write above, a most compelling topic, not without pertinence to the social phenomena of populism and the loss of faith in scientific and cultural institutions….

Kripal also touched on our shared reality, as a “story” or “myth” of “secularism”, that unreflected, unquestioned, average-everyday “real” where most of us live our lives, what some historical materialists term “ideology”. For him, the paranormal throws that assumed reality into radical question, a feature not unrelated to the epistemic social struggles mentioned, above. Kripal’s notion, here, strikes me as a little belated; I’d be surprised if he were unacquainted with the scholarship around post-secularism, a concept coined by Jürgen Habermas and developed by Jacques Derrida (however much it was first articulated by ex-pat poet and scholar Peter Dale Scott…), the thesis that, counter to the “Secularization thesis” (that in the face of ever more powerful natural scientific explanations for phenomena and the concomitant growth in technological power over nature religion would of itself wither away…), religion has seen a resurgence due, in part, to its answering personal and social needs scientific institutions and secular society cannot….

With regard to this real, the cosmos articulated by the natural sciences, Kripal presents a startling image, that of Day and Night, how the light of science (if not reason) illuminates one aspect of reality, the other being obscured by that same light, whose relative absence is the condition for this other aspect to come into view…. I think Kripal makes a very important point here, whose implications are both far-reaching and profound, as much as those concerning the social role of the paranormal. Kripal’s analogy has further implications than those he draws out. On the one hand, it reminds us the matrix of the natural sciences is unreason or the irrational, religion in ancient Greece and magic in the European Renaissance (readers of F. M. Cornford and Frances Yates will know what I’m talking about, here), and, on the other, the way the irrational shadows rationality. At the same time, especially with regard to the social significance of the paranormal, this line of thought leads to the atrocity museum of unreason, whether the dismemberment of Orpheus or Cadmus by the followers of Bacchus or the enthusiasm of the Thirty Years War or the witch trial…

It is most fitting, therefore, in view of the challenge to science and consensus reality posed by the paranormal that Kripal should finish his talk with a nod to his forthcoming book on the “superhumanities“. When he first mentioned this idea, in the context of his talk, I imagined he referred to a renewed interdisciplinarity, of the the kind that inspired the modern university and much-resisted efforts in the 1970s (resistance coming from what Jacques Derrida termed “academic apartheid”…). On the one hand, he does seem to propose at least a dilation and reconfiguration of the humanistic disciplines, while, on the other, he explores “a long repressed or forgotten history of the humanities that orbits around the experience and theorization of the superhuman.” In this latter regard, along with his invocation of the knowledge of the “night”, and the attention he has given to Nietzsche and his Übermensch, I must wonder if Kripal isn’t playing with fire. We’ll have to wait until his book appears in July…

Jacques Vallée, “The Four Garments of Aletheia: Reality Management and the Challenge of Truth”

It is always a pleasure to hear Jacques Vallée speak; despite the protestations of certain sckepticks and the catastrophes of his recent collaborative books (Wonders in the Sky, with Chris Aubeck, and especially Trinity: The Best Kept Secret, with Paola Leopizzi Harris), Vallée is no woo-meister. His keynote address, aside from a slow start, was eloquent, learned (in its way), and impassioned, however many grave reservations I have about details of its argument…

Vallée organizes his discourse around the four “garments” or guises of Aletheia, the Greek goddess of truth. (I was relieved he, under the influence of Diana Walsh Pasulka, hadn’t attempted to deploy philosopher Martin Heidegger’s famous treatment of truth-as-aletheia…). The four guises of Aletheia are religious tradition, the historical record, “intelligence” (as in “intelligence agency”, e.g. the CIA), and mathematics.

He points to the world’s religious traditions and the historical record to evidence interactions with nonhuman intelligences (e.g., gods, angels, djinn, etc.) are nothing new, contextualizing modern UFO and encounter reports, a thesis well-known from his Passport to Magonia. However (and this is puzzling, given his hobnobbing with scholars of religion Pasulka and Kripal, among others), his understanding of scriptural hermeneutics is impoverished and his notion of history is ahistorical (i.e., it does not include temporally-inflected cultural difference).

His primary example from religious tradition is the Epiphany, the visit of the three magi to the baby Jesus. He raises the question of just what heavenly body the magi followed, a matter investigated by, among others, Carl Sagan. In a way, he resolves the issue with reference to an obscure text that describes the luminous body that guided the magi as a globe containing an infant. He posits this latter version as evidence for premodern encounters analogous to close encounters reported since 1947. But to ask after the physical identity of the Star of Bethlehem is akin to asking for a meteorological or other explanation for the colour of the sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Neither the biblical tale nor the painting are in the first instance representations. The “truth” of the tale of the Magi is that the Christ child is destined to be the saviour of Jew and Gentile alike; the Magi are led to the manger by a star, because they were, among other things, astrologers; their gifts are likewise symbolic: gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for mortality. To take the biblical story as a literal, historical account is to completely misread it….

Vallée’s historical evidence fares no better and for the same reason. Following the lead of Diana Pasulka this time, he offers the story of Saint Francis’ receiving the stigmata as a narrative with modern analogues, namely, luminous phenomena, nonhuman entities, paralysis and other physical effects, and telepathic communication. Vallée cribs his version from the account of Brother Leo, an eyewitness to the event. Vallée relates that before a luminous phenomenon, Francis is stricken prostrate, muttering in conversation with an unseen interlocutor, before receiving the famous stigmata from beams of light projected from the luminous phenomenon. However, Vallée also relates how Leo tells us Francis raised his hand three times. That (according to Vallée) Leo records so symbolic a detail (“three” being a charged number in Catholicism…) should be taken as a sign that, like the biblical story of the magi, Leo’s “report” of Francis’ vision needs be read for its rhetorical before its literal import. Again, Vallée has fallen prey to failing to grasp how narratives from distant times and cultures demand a philological and hermeneutic labour as a propadeutic to their interpretation. Ironically, Vallée seems to have failed to apply the observations he makes at the beginning of his address that “there is no absolute truth”, i.e., in the language of information theory, no truth is context independent.

Vallée’s discussion of the remaining two guises of Aletheia are, to an extent, less controversial. Under the rubric of “intelligence” he warns us that no UFO report after 1975, and certainly not after 1985, can be taken at face value, given the way the phenomenon has been exploited by national security agencies of various countries for various ends. In this regard, he makes a tactful nod to much of the material in his Revelations. His discussion of Aletheia-as-mathematics is a mix of the (relatively) well-known and the iconoclastic if not idiosyncratic. He seeks to disabuse us of the concept of mathematics as a field of indisputable knowledge and truth, reminding us, first, of the crises and controversies in the philosophy of mathematics and logic at the beginning of the Twentieth century, especially Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Any student of philosophy in the English-speaking world will likely already be well-apprised of this history. He goes on, however, to cite the research of an information scientist whose name eluded me, who has argued somewhat paradoxically that, on the one hand, because of these and subsequent developments in the discipline, mathematics is now an empirical, experimental science, rather than an a priori one, while, on the other, that the future of mathematics-as-information-theory promises to illuminate the nature of mind, intelligence, consciousness, the origin of life on earth and its evolution (!).

But putting aside these problematic arguments, Vallée did make one remarkable claim, though he did not explain or develop it, namely, that “the phenomenon is not a system but a metasystem.” If he is using the prefix “meta-” in the same sense as “metalanguage” (a language about language) rather than “metaphysics” (“after” physics), then he is taking a position I have touched on, namely that the phenomenon might not be approached as it presents itself but as a sign system. That is, just like the pictographs that compose hieroglyphics are not pictures of objects but symbols that function as parts of a system, so too the drama of the UFO or entity encounter event is not what it appears to be but points beyond itself to some other significance. Perhaps this is what the aliens famously encountered by Herbert Schirmer meant when they told him they wanted human beings to believe in them, but not too much, a case remarked by Vallée himself in his address.

There remains one ironic omission that haunts Vallée’s presentation. Each time he introduced a new guise of Aletheia, he did so in the manner of a film director: “Cue Aletheia, dressed in the tricolor…”. Unconsciously, Vallée is gesturing to another, unremarked guise of truth, truth as art. It’s this mode of truth that undermines his examples of truth-as-religion and truth-as-history, as his reading of the tale of the magi and the story of Francis’ stigmata overlooks the art of rhetoric and narrative that articulate these stories. That the phenomenon is both played with (by Aletheia-as-intelligence) and plays with us (“The phenomenon has a sense of humour”), the UFO or anomalous phenomenon might fruitfully be thought as an aesthetic phenomenon as much as a trans- if not metaphysical one. In any event, the paranormal demands, as Vallée exhorts his audience at the end of his address, bold theorizing and a capacity to dream….