Further untimely thoughts on Jeffrey Kripal’s Superhumanities

This past Tuesday (22 March 2022), Jeffrey Kripal delivered a lecture “The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities” under the auspices of the University of British Columbia’s Program in the Study of Religion as part, in part, of the kind of promotion that goes on in academic circles for his new book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

Normally, I would have written up my response immediately following the lecture, but I was given pause for two reasons. First, Kripal’s concluding remarks included the confession that he didn’t care if he were wrong. This is no irresponsible shrug of his scholarly shoulders, but, on one hand, an admission of his and all of our human, all-too-human limitations: anyone can be mistaken, even about matters that have concerned them a lifetime; on the other, as he went on to say, any scrutiny of his position and arguments around it push the topic along and keep it, well, topical. I think, too, his words have a more personal sense, one appropriate to a scholar and thinker at a certain stage in their career: he’s invested a life’s work in the matter and, at this point, his sense of the value of what he has accomplished, if only for himself, and what he has set out still to do is unlikely to be very much altered by the kind of criticism it is likely to face in the academic or para-academic milieu. Second, especially in the wake of the Archives of the Impossible conference, which I responded to, as well, I was struck by how, on the one hand (…), certain figures in certain circles can say nothing wrong. Here, I’m thinking of the reception of the plenary sessions delivered by Jacques Vallée, Whitley Strieber, and Diana Pasulka (now Diana Heath, if I understand correctly). On the other hand, these same figures in certain other circles can say nothing right. Such dogmatic stances to the matter at hand fail to do justice to it, if it’s at all as important as Kripal and other invested researchers believe it to be. In this context, my own interventions, when they are understood to be at all critical—and they have been, at times—have been misconstrued as siding with the “skeptics”. So, if Kripal is persuaded of the soundness of his views and any reflections on the matter I might offer will likely be misunderstood (if they’re read by very many at all), I can be forgiven, I think, a certain reflective reticence….

That being said, I am moved to share my thoughts on Kripal’s lecture. In one regard, our respective projects might be said to overlap: his proposed, forthcoming trilogy concerns what he terms “emergent mythologies”, among them that which hovers around the UFO. In another respect, our more fundamental positions might appear to be complementary: Kripal seems intent to disabuse us of a certain received history of modernity, “materialism” or “secularism” (that science and reason have dispelled religion and the belief in and experience of the supernatural or paranormal), while I work around the edges of that technoscientfic hegemony to reveal its historical roots in its Other (religion and magic) and its being embedded and invested in social formations and practices that ground its reification and ideological function, i.e., we’re both critical of a too-comfortable self-image of “advanced society”. Finally, despite his confidence if not comfort in what he believes his scholarship has established to date, as a reader of Nietzsche, he will appreciate that, whatever criticisms I level here, what does not kill his positions might serve to make them stronger.

Kripal’s lecture is essentially tripartite. He begins by outlining what back in the days of High Theory would have been termed a “violent hierarchy”, a binary opposition wherein one term is valorized or privileged, in this case, that between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and the humanities: the former studies objects about which it gathers evidence that it quantifies numerically in order to grasp causal mechanisms underlying the behaviour of nature; the latter studies human subjects by means of the narratives produced by or about them (“anecdotes”); thus the primary data of the humanities is texts whose meaning it seeks to understand. For STEM, physics, nature or matter is absolute; for the humanities, the social. It needs hardly be pointed out that STEM is the valorized term in the context of higher education and society in general. Kripal goes on to posit that psi phenomena trouble if not collapse this opposition, being the space wherein the res extensa of physics and the res cogitans of the mental interact intractably.

Next, Kripal, as he says, “drops names”: as counter-evidence to Max Weber’s thesis concerning the disenchantment (Entzauberung) of the world in modernity, he reviews prominent figures whose taking seriously psi is generally overlooked or devalued. He refers to Madame Curie’s attending a séance; Immanuel Kant’s interest in the reported clairvoyance of Emmanuel Swedenborg; Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s advocacy of what today we term “paranormal”; William James’ parapsychological research and interest in various hallucinogenics and psychedelics; the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois; Derrida’s putative “conversion to telepathy”; Foucault’s LSD trip in Death Valley and interest in the California counterculture; and the experiences and ideas of recent figures, Gloria Anzaldua and Amitav Ghosh.

To conclude, on the basis of this quick sketch of the repressed or suppressed paranormal, Kripal draws a number of inferences. The humanities have, in a sense, always been shadowed or haunted by the superhumanities, i.e., a grudging, tactful, or marginalized acknowledgement of and serious interest in the paranormal. Such phenomena lend themselves to humanistic study because of their hermeneutic character, i.e., unlike merely natural phenomena that simply “are”, paranormal experiences are often experienced as charged with meaning, the very object of the art of interpretation (hermeneutics). Therefore, this relatively occult history of the humanities’ relation to the paranormal and the character of paranormal experience and of the humanities themselves all suggest that, were this history to be more openly acknowledged and affirmed and the phenomena in question thereby freed from their stigma, the humanities might thereby intellectually and institutionally authorize the paranormal, ontologically, socially, and, most importantly, culturally and spiritually. Or so I understand Kripal’s lecture….

As might be imagined, I have some nits to pick with certain claims Kripal makes and more substantive reservations about his argument in general. No one, I think, familiar with the state of higher education in, at least, North America would find much to disagree with in his estimate of the situation. STEM flourishes while the humanities are starved, with some exceptions, which I will address, below. Kripal’s history of the occulted superhumanities is, however, less persuasive. Most specifically, anyone familiar with Kant, Derrida, and Foucault will be liable to take exception to his readings. Kripal points, first, to the contradiction between the one letter wherein Kant writes of reports of Swedenborg’s powers with no little curious amazement (to Charlotte von Knoblauch, 10 August, 1763 (?)) and the more generally critical work Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics he published anonymously in 1766 (though he did, in fact, reveal his authorship to friends and colleagues to whom he sent copies of the book) and, second, to the book’s “rhetoric” to argue that Kant was sympathetic to claims made for Swedenborg’s clairvoyance and visions, or so I understand him. The more accepted interpretation of the letter and book is that Kant’s opinion shifted from curiosity to skepticism after having looked further into the matter and having purchased and read Swedenborg’s works, wherein, as Kant writes, “He found what one usually finds when one has no business searching at all, exactly nothing!”. Having come of intellectual age in the Eighties, I’m one of the first to admit one might very well read Kant “against the grain” (“deconstructively”) to thereby show how precisely the rhetoric of the text undermines and contradicts its apparently explicit intent, but that exercise is painstaking and not briefly discharged; one can only wait and see if Kripal undertakes such a demonstration in his forthcoming book. With regards to Derrida’s late text “Telepathy”, I have already noted the challenges of reading it at face value, as taking telepathy literally. Anyone with the time, patience, or hermeneutic fortitude to struggle with and through the text in question itself and survey its reception will see quickly, I wager, it has as much to do with telepathy as Derrida’s more famous Specters of Marx has to do with ghosts in the parapsychological sense. Likewise with Foucault: his readers have long recognized the development of his thinking, from a famous posthumanism that looked forward to the “end of Man” and the disappearance of what in French are called “the human sciences” to his studies on human sexuality and the rediscovery of the human subject in the “art of the self”. Again, one can only wonder if a thorough-going deconstruction of Derrida’s “Telepathy” (which, at the same time, in the name of the rigor characteristic of that “method”, demands a reading, at least, of The Postcard…) is in the offing along with a reading of Foucault’s intellectual development to legitimate offering them as exhibits in his history of the (super)humanities.

The case of Nietzsche is more controversial but no less problematic. Nietzsche plays an important, dual role in the story Kripal would tell. On the one hand, he is an important source of inspiration for all those thinkers too-often all-too-loosely lumped together as “postmodern deconstructionists”—Heidegger, Derrida, & Co—whose influence (or what remains of it) Kripal would like to see displaced. On the other, even moreso than Schopenhauer (with whose work I am not sufficiently well-acquainted to comment on, like that of Du Bois, Anzaldua, or Ghosh), Nietzsche’s affirmation of psi phenomena (e.g., clairvoyance) and his annunciation of the “superman” make him a, if not the, key figure in the story of the suppressed superhumanities. Kripal draws most heavily on the unpublished writings composed around the time of Thus Spake Zarathustra, roughly from 1883 until Nietzsche’s collapse in January, 1889, fortunate enough to be able to refer to the recent English-language translation of the Critical Edition of the Collected Works. I’ll pass over reflecting on Kripal’s preferred translation of the German word for Nietzsche’s problem child, the Übermensch, and the function of that figure in Nietzsche’s thought that would call that translation into question to address the hermeneutic challenge that Kripal seems to, ironically, bypass. With regard to Kant’s text on Swedenborg, Kripal posited in his lecture that its rhetoric undermined its overt dismissal of the seer’s purported powers. However, when it comes to Nietzsche, Kripal seems all-too-ready to take his author’s words at face value, which, to anyone acquainted with Nietzsche’s styles (Derrida calls them “spurs”) and their scholarly reception must seem surprising. As is well-known, Nietzsche was a professor of classical philology and therefore well-acquainted with the rhetorical figures, tropes and schemes catalogued by the classical heritage. He is also recognized as one of the great stylists of the German-language, a style marked by a pronounced indeterminacy. Throughout his work, he employs not only a dizzying shift in tone but dons many masks, personae, among them, famously, “Zarathustra”. However much Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” might be said to belong to his nay-saying, “deconstructive” period (in Kripal’s telling), the famous passage about truth’s being “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, [and] anthropomorphisms” holds true for all his writings. It seems therefore a little inconsistent to argue that Kant’s judgements on Swedenborg’s abilities can be called into question if not undermined by the rhetoric of his sobre if somewhat baroque philosophical prose, while pronouncements made by Nietzsche in his (in)famously overtly rhetorical styles can be unproblematically taken at face value.

There is a curious irony in Kripal’s argument about the suppression of the paranormal in the humanities: the more examples he adduces the weaker his argument becomes, i.e., if he shows a consistent concern for what we term the paranormal, then in what sense is there a need for his superhumanities? The matter is far from simple. In outlining his history, he gathers evidence that the humanities, at least since the Eighteenth century, have always been in however repressed a sense the superhumanities. As we’ve seen, he maps a fascination for and engagement with the paranormal from Kant to the present (a not unfateful sample). Listening to him, I was moved to wonder just how ambivalent the humanities’ relation to what we term the paranormal has been. In his history, Kripal remarks William James and his interest in parapsychology, hallucinogens and psychedelics, as if these interests are either unknown or smirked at. However, James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, which touches on Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) in general and their chemical variations, is canonical. In the field of modern philosophy, the place of more esoteric or “mystical” doctrines is well-known and accepted: the Kabbalism of Isaac Luria enters the mainstream of European philosophy first in the work of Spinoza, then by Spinoza’s influence on Jacobi, Hegel, and others. The Neo-Platonism of Renaissance Italy (e.g., that of Ficino) and England also plays a role in that foment of philosophical reflection between Kant and Hegel. Hegel himself, famously, draws out the truth of even phrenology in his Phenomenology of Spirit, and his friend and rival Schelling published a philosophical novel on the death of his wife, Clara or, On Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World. Their contemporary, the playwright and prose writer Heinrich von Kleist, writes a ghost story “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” that presents the matter in an indeterminate manner, leaving the reader having to decide for themselves as to the “reality” of the haunting. English-language literature from the same period to the present displays a similar engagement with “the paranormal”. William Blake was a visionary, who looked “not with but through the eye” for models for his drawings and paintings. Walt Whitman’s sudden inspiration that bloomed as Leaves of Grass is attributed to his undergoing a mystical experience of “cosmic consciousness“. William Butler Yeats’ interest in ghosts, “the Fair Folk”, and magic are all well attested; his A Vision presents a metaphysical system dictated to his wife George by “spooks”. The place of the occult among the Modernist poets Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and H.D. is a rich and living vein of scholarship. And more recently, the work of William S Burroughs is no less an exploration of ASC, magic, and other aspects of the paranormal; the novelist’s character Kim Carsons from The Place of Dead Roads embodies these fascinations well: “His mother had been into table-tapping and Kim adores ectoplasm, crystal balls, spirit guides and auras.” Such an offhand catalogue seems to both strengthen and overturn Kripal’s position: there is doubtless a longstanding and general interest and engagement in “the paranormal” among thinkers and artists, but, if this is so, then the humanities have always been, in a way, the superhumanities: just what institutional and societal changes, then, does Kripal imagine are called for?

I wager this apparent tension can be resolved if we attend both to the explicit historical horizon Kripal is working within and some of its dimmer, more occluded edges. As I understand it, Kripal is pushing back against a certain understanding or reception of Weber’s contention that industrialized and bureaucratic societies undergo a “disenchantment” (German: Entzauberung) that gets restated in the Secularization Thesis in sociology, that this process of modernization witnesses a decline in religious belief and practice and perhaps its ultimate disappearance. Kripal sometimes seems to echo the too easy “refutation” of “the death of God” by those who point to the resurgence of fundamentalisms and the rise of New Age spiritualities. In my understanding, these theses concerning secularization can be true quite apart from flows and ebbs in belief, for they describe the advent of a certain horizon within which belief must now orient itself, namely that of a purely immanent reality, as opposed to a nature transcended by a supernatural realm, exemplified by that of the natural sciences. It is this context that lays the ground for the very possibility of the appearance of the paranormal as such, since, before, there was only the miraculous or supernatural. It is therefore no accident that Kripal begins his history of the occult superhumanities in the Eighteenth century. It is only when the supernatural has become questionable, its home in a divine Creation being replaced by a new normal, that defined by the Scientific Revolution and the consequent changes in our self understanding by developments in astronomy (the Copernican Revolution), geology (the earth’s being more than, e.g., 6,000 years old), biology (the theory of evolution), and even theology (demythologization), that the need for a category of the paranormal can even come to be felt. It is therefore somewhat beside the point to protest that this purely secular worldview is by no means absolute and that an interest in and engagement with the miraculous and paranormal persist. Indeed, I sought to even strengthen the argument against a certain strong reading of the Secularization Thesis, when I was graciously allowed to ask Kripal if he saw the post-secular (a disillusionment with purely secular answers to how we should live and the recognition that the resources of religious tradition have neither been transcended nor exhausted), contemplative studies, or psychedelic studies as dovetailing into his imagined project for a superhumanities. (Kripal’s response was negative).

It’s at this point a distinction between two senses of “materialist” becomes important. Kripal perceives, I take it, that the spirit of the time is essentially “materialist”: regardless of the religious beliefs of the populace, the reigning worldview is natural scientific (“only matter is real”), technological, and technocratic, evidenced by the valorization of STEM in higher education. The humanities, by contrast, have been forced into an ever tighter corner, both by these ex cathedra forces (philistine capitalism) and by their restricting themselves to various parodies of the natural sciences (e.g., attempting to develop empirical, testable methodologies) or to merely “negative”, critical stances. In this view, the Other to Kripal’s imagined superhumanities is just this secular, materialist episteme for which only the physical and objective, or anonymous, third-person perspective, is real and true. However, there is another sense of “materialist”, that found in the expression “historical materialist”, whose viewpoint is summarized neatly in Marx’s early statement that “It is not consciousness of [human beings] that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” From this point of view, the ascendance of the secularism that displaces the religious and spiritual is not a “Mental Fight” (in Blake’s words) but a process better understood as related to wealth and power. The Age of Reason and its various atheisms didn’t arise because of some dialectic of spirit, some current in cultural conversation, but because of the decades of carnage wrought by religious wars in the wake of the Reformation, most notably the Thirty Years War. The natural sciences and the technologies they underwrite (and that later determine them) are not true because they are within certain contexts demonstrably so, but because they work; they fulfill the demand, in Jean-François Lyotard’s terms, that they perform, and under capitalism that performance is measured by profitability. It is no wonder, then, that STEM is valued and funded, but even those humanities whose results can be harnessed as means to ends of profit and power are also cultured: language departments that study the language of the moment’s enemy or psychology departments that help refine methods of enhanced interrogation… Kripal’s cultural adversary is not so much or only the “materialism” that identifies mental states with brain states but perhaps moreso the “materialism” of invested, social forces that values STEM for the power and profit these disciplines can bestow.

There is, more profoundly, a further distinction even more germane, I think, that between “meaning” and “meaning”. As Kripal outlines in opposing STEM to the humanities, the latter operate in an interpretive, hermeneutic realm of understanding, or “meaning”. STEM explains where the humanities understand. But Kripal, in his description of certain paranormal experiences, invokes, I argue, a different “meaning”, one more akin to the meaning granted by precisely life-orienting religious practice or philosophical belief or that experienced in a mystical state, whether spontaneous or entheogenic. It is precisely this meaningfulness that religion has traditionally addressed and that modern, secular society has no time for, pretending to grant every citizen a freedom of conscience in this regard while supplying only one real “material” possibility, consumption. But even this distinction, I don’t think, quite catches what Kripal is after.

If I understand him, he seems to want paranormal phenomena to be taken seriously, admitted to be as real as presently accepted natural phenomena and their nature and consequences for our conception of human being and nature to be investigated. His history of the humanities’ engagement with the paranormal intends to establish this as both an incipient and not unreasonable project. Because such phenomena are not strictly merely paraphysical, their study demands a kind of investigation both and neither natural scientific or hermeneutic (I remain uncertain on this point). The interdisciplinarity he sees demanded is based on the phenomena’s exceeding our present reduction of the mental to the material (in our “secular, material” worldview) or our failure to fundamentally grasp the mental and its relation to the material. The superhumanities are therefore just these superdisciplines that also open the way to conceiving of our own super-, rather than trans-, humanity (hence his preferred translation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch).

If my characterization of Kripal’s thesis is at all accurate, I have a number of reservations. First, the whole problem of matter and mind is posed in a conceptually coarse manner: it seems to rely on an essentially Cartesian distinction between two kinds of “stuff”, res extensa (physical, material stuff) and res cogitans (conscious, thinking stuff), a characterization of the problem that overlooks the more sophisticated descriptions and articulations of consciousness that begin with Kant and come down to more recent reflections by Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, and (perhaps) Markus Gabriel, a current of reflection not sufficiently appreciated by, for example, one of Kripal’s favoured thinkers in this department, Benardo Kastrup (such, at least, is my impression). Secondly, it strikes me as odd that Kripal, teaching in a university in Texas, seems not to remark a very vital community of believers in the miraculous, if not the paranormal, the various fundamentalist Christian sects in North America, with their firm belief in the immortality of the soul, visions, glossolalia, miraculous healings, possessions, and so forth. This group, along with its New Age cousin, is also characterized by a tendency to believe in the conspiracy theories that have recently disrupted political life in North America and public health measures globally. This broader and graver problem of an epistemic breach in Western societies, a loss of faith (!) in secular institutions, including (not always coherently) STEM, is not easily disentangled from a belief in or affirmation of paranormal phenomena, and it’s just such sociopolitical ramifications that call for serious, concerted reflection.

All that being said, Kripal’s project is broad and deep, articulated in nearly a dozen scholarly books, countless papers and presentations, and an entire career of research and teaching. What I remark here touches on a very restricted portion of that oeuvre. Nevertheless, I am moved to engage Kripal’s thinking in this lecture, both because it addresses matters of mutual interest and concern and because, if such matters are at all important, they demand to be taken with a certain seriousness, which is, at the very least, a gesture of intellectual, scholarly respect.

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…).

Jeffrey Kripal presents “The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities”

Since Jeffrey Kripal announced the imminent publication of his book on the superhumanities, I doubt I’ve been alone in being curious about just what he is proposing.

A quick web search will reveal, at least, a YouTube lecture he gave under the auspices of the Parapsychological Association, now viewable here. Interested parties can hear him present his ideas, again, at an upcoming lecture at University of British Columbia, which will be broadcast on Zoom 22 March 2021 4:00 p.m PST.

The abstract for the talk:

What would happen if we reimagined the humanities as the superhumanities? If we acknowledged and celebrated the undercurrent of the fantastic within our humanistic disciplines, entirely new cultural worlds and meanings would become possible. That is Jeffrey J. Kripal’s vision for the future—to revive the suppressed dimension of the superhumanities, which consists of rare but real altered states of knowledge that have driven the creative processes of many of our most revered authors, artists, and activists. In Kripal’s telling, the history of the humanities is filled with precognitive dreams, evolving superhumans, and doubled selves. The basic idea of the superhuman, for Kripal, is at the core of who and what the human species has tried to become over millennia and around the planet.

Kripal argues that we have to decolonize reality itself if we are going to take human diversity seriously. Toward this pluralist end, he engages psychoanalytic, Black critical, feminist, postcolonial, queer, and ecocritical theory to move beyond naysaying practices of critique toward a future that can embrace those critiques within a more holistic view that recognizes the human being as both a social-political animal as well as an evolved cosmic species that understands and experiences itself as something super.

I’ve made public my reservations, especially in regards to hints he’s dropped of his reading of Derrida in the book, and, from what what I heard in that YouTube lecture, his reading of Nietzsche is idiosyncratic if more defensible. Nevertheless, I, for one, will surely try to take this lecture in (and write about it, here!). And, of course, I look forward to reading his full treatment of the matter when his book appears in July…

You can read my response to the lecture, here.

A bad omen? An all-too preliminary note on a detail of Jeffrey Kripal’s Superhumanities…

In his remarks opening the Archives of the Impossible conference, Jeffrey Kripal references his work on articulating the “superhumanities”, the title of his forthcoming book. Curious, I followed up what Kripal might have had to say about this project and found a lecture he gave on the topic under the auspices of The Parapsychological Association.

At around the 8:20 mark, Kripal refers to “Jacques Derrida’s late conversion to telepathy as the ultimate deconstruction of the subject.” I have grave misgivings that in this instance Kripal, along with George Hansen, might well have misread Derrida’s brain-cracking piece, “Telepathy”, now collected in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 1. To put the matter in nuce, “Telepathy” is not about telepathy in the parapsychological sense, nor does its composition and belated publication mark a “conversion”.

“Telepathy” is a collection of ten, dated texts, from 9 July 1979 to 15 July 1979. Derrida himself makes clear in the first endnote that these ten texts were intended to be included in the first section of The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, whose first section, “Envois” is composed of the same kind of short texts, dated 3 June 1977 to 30 August 1979, which, Derrida tells us, might be considered “the remainders of a recently destroyed correspondence” (3). It’s not that Derrida essays the topic of telepathy as a paranormal phenomenon, but that “Telepathy” is a fragment of a larger text, composed itself of fragments, which (as is Derrida’s wont) probe or essay ‘telepathy’, especially as it is articulated by Freud (See note 7 to “Telepathy” in Psyche), as part of Derrida’s larger deconstructive project to think and write about language, writing, and literature in novel terms (e.g., telepathy) not indebted to the “metaphysical” inheritance, to (re)think ‘telepathy’ as “inextricably linked to the question of writing” and “as a name for literature as a discursive formation”, all persistent themes in Derrida’s philosophical oeuvre.

It may very well be I am jumping the gun here. We’ll have to wait for Kripal’s book to be published, as I, for one, lack the clairvoyance needed to determine if my misgivings are justified….

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….

Pedantic Outrage or Sloppy Scholarship?

Anyone who has observed ants will have noticed that as the heat rises so does the feverishness of their activity. The reason is that the increase in ambient kinetic energy accelerates the biochemical reactions that drive their metabolisms, quite literally speeding them up. With Montreal in the grip of a heat wave and the Solstice just over the horizon, as it were, it would appear, despite being an endotherm, at least my ant-soul has succumbed to the climate.

A member of a Facebook group I belong to shared this quotation from the latest book by Jeffrey J. Kripal, The Flip:

kripal on kant

It could be I’m just picking a nit, but the cited passage above is consistent with those others about Kant in The Super Natural and Authors of the Impossible, and Kant’s philosophy seems to play a not unimportant role in Kripal’s more general views, given references to the philosopher in his books and this quotation from his latest. So, as a life-long student of philosophy in general, Kant, German Romanticism and Idealism in particular, and a painstaking scholar myself, passages like this one just get under my skin. In the first place, it’s just wrong:  space and time are the forms of intuition (or sensibility), one of the two ways human beings access possible objects of knowledge, the other being thought, to which the categories of the understanding pertain. Moreover, the experience posited as contradicting Kant, doesn’t:  the mother’s precognitive dream is still spatiotemporal, or it wouldn’t even make sense to call it precognitive; the dream’s manifest content merely steps out of the temporal order of waking life. It is, nevertheless, temporal, both in itself (dreams are a sequence, however disjunct, of images) and as an experience (dreams occur between falling asleep and waking).

Kripal can surely be forgiven for a single, passing, less-than-precise passage, especially in view of all the other wide-ranging, ground-breaking work he has achieved, which is far from insubstantial. I’m even tempted to give passages such as this a free pass, depending on the book’s intended audience:  a work for a more general readership is surely expected and allowed to be less technically specific than one intended for his learned peers. However, the mistake in the cited passage is an error and misrepresentation, not a simplification; it wouldn’t pass in an undergraduate philosophy class and so, by the same token, really shouldn’t appear in print, regardless of the intended reader.

Nevertheless, if The Super Natural is anything to go by, what Kripal terms “the phenomenological cut” does appear to play no slight role in his more general thinking, which would entail, at some point, his presenting a more explicit rehearsal of just what he makes of Kant’s ideas, let alone addressing how that “cut” has been explored and made both more profound and subtle, both by the thinkers immediately following Kant and those since, such as Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, among others. If Kripal really wants to bring Kant’s critical philosophy to bear in a sustainably persuasive (i.e., rigorous) manner, then such work really needs be in evidence. It may well be that in one of his many papers or singly-authored or co-edited books he has set forth his position in this regard; if an interested reader can point us to the relevant publication, it would be sincerely appreciated.

Unhappily, the passage from Kripal’s latest is really only an example of a more general tendency that’s seeped into my sensorium. I have been led to make the same complaint of two recent books concerning the religious dimension of the UFO phenomenon, David Halperin’s Intimate Alien and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic. I would underline, again, how much both books deserve and demand a more thoroughgoing treatment than a (for me) passing remark in a blog post, a task I’ve resolved to fulfill. That being said, in the case of Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books (as I have argued), cultural (read: commercial) pressures seem most to blame for any evident deviations from full-throttle scholarship. However, it is nevertheless the case that Heidegger (or, at least, the post-“turn” Heidegger) plays a role in American Cosmic no less important than that of Kant in Kripal’s thinking and seems to suffer from the same handling. Despite being addressed only in the book’s introduction, Heidegger’s thinking on technology and related topics seems (to me) to come up repeatedly in discussions of the book and in conversations with the author herself. Again, I may well be irritably picking another nit, but I’d wager I’m worrying more at a red thread in Pasulka’s argument more in the manner of Derrida’s writing at length on a footnote in Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Here, I merely cite my observations concerning the use of Heidegger in American Cosmic from an earlier post:  In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is:  a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin:  “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light [that that frame itself can become visible, an object for our thinking and, therefore, no longer fencing and controlling that thinking, invisible as the eye is to itself in seeing].

My points here are manifold. On the one hand, it is gratifying to see the German philosophical tradition being recognized for its relevance to these matters and being brought to bear. On another hand, I’m eager to see the full force of this tradition being applied, for which a deeper and more fluent understanding of that tradition is needed than I myself have witnessed. On the third hand, I look forward to following up on my intuition that Kant and Heidegger function as brîsures in Kripal’s and Pasulka’s thinking, respectively, upon which future critiques if not deconstructions (in the rigorous sense) might hinge.