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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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