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I would be interested to hear how many Teeming Brain readers find aspects of their own beliefs and experiences described by this extremely interesting article at Pacific Standard, and/or how many of you have observed the trend it identifies playing out in the lives of people you know. That trend, by the way, is “a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal,” as both science and traditional Judeo-Christian religiosity fail to fulfill deep human longings, resulting in the rise and increasing prevalence in America (and elsewhere) of a paranormal-themed religious syncretism that amounts to “a new religious worldview.”
[E]verywhere you look in the United States today, the supernatural is more culturally important, more acceptable, and just. . . more than it’s ever been before. Paranormal-themed media of all types have surged, in fiction obviously, but also in non-fiction too, where the past few years have brought us everything from The Most Terrifying Places in America to Psychic Tia to The Monster Project. Then there are the Bigfoot hunts, the ghost hunting tool reviews, the UFO spotting iPhone apps — we can’t get enough of this stuff.
This should come as no surprise. Despite our reputation as a science-minded superpower, America has always had a predilection for the unseen. It has ebbed and flowed with us for as long as this nation has existed, in the form of the 18th-century pilgrim mystics, the domesticated poltergeists that knocked on command in the 19th, and even in the academically inclined parapsychologists of the 20th. Whether you believe in these ideas or not is almost immaterial: the paranormal is an inescapable ingredient in the American identity that has shaped and been shaped by our society for centuries.
Perhaps that makes it all the more meaningful that today’s supernatural surge is not just another cycle of the same old thing, but a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal. It’s democratic, laden with jargon, and endlessly customizable — in short, it’s the DIY American techno-religion of the 21st century.
. . . [According to Tok Thompson, a folklorist at the University of Southern California,] “Even though it’s done great things for the iPads, I don’t think science has done very well at answering the big questions like, What happens when I die? In fact, science has absolutely nothing to say about that right now, and people want to know.”
. . . “A certain kind of American is no long going to the Bible for his or her worldview, they’re going to science,” says Jeffrey Kripal, a religion scholar at Rice University who has studied the interaction between pop culture and the paranormal. But, he adds, “they’re then linking that science up with these various spiritual currents, which have been in America for at least a century and a half, and they’re basically building a new religious worldview.”
Full article: “The Church of the Paranormal“
Image courtesy of hyena reality / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world. “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”
— Louis Cattiaux
It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.
Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”
Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.
Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.Read the rest of this entry
(Given all of the conversations that have arisen here recently on the connections between theological speculation and fantastic fiction, it seems an appropriate time to revisit, and revise, and expand, a piece that I originally wrote for The Eyeless Owl.)
Let no man read here who lives only in the world about him. To these leaves, let no man stoop to whom Yesterday is as a closed book with iron hasps, to whom Tomorrow is the unborn twin of Today. Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned. But I have dreamed as men have dreamed and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.
— From the introduction to Etchings in Ivory by Robert E. Howard
While reading Joscelyn Godwin’s Atlantis and the Cycles of Time — regarding which, see this excerpt — I was struck by how familiar I already was with the invoked imagery of Hyperborean civilizations. I’ve never had much of an interest in that realm of speculation, so it was odd that its concepts would be so recognizable, almost palpable, to my mind’s eye. It took me a few days to realize that this was because much of the narrative and imagery had already been put into my consciousness by a youth spent reading the works of Robert E. Howard. As one of the founding writers of the “swords and sorcery” genre, Howard portrayed his Hyperborean heroes Conan, Kull, and Bran Mac Morn all traveling through worlds enlivened by Theosophical and speculative archaeological theories of prehistoric civilizations.
The author of a more muscular strain of weird tale than what was written by some of his fellow pulp titans, Howard seems an unlikely host to some of the fae notions of Theosophical cosmology. However, after doing a bit of research I found that his interest in history, which gave his historical fiction an air of reality, was paralleled by an equal interest in the occult. His initial letters to H.P. Lovecraft contain inquiries into the esoteric truths behind the Cthulhu Mythos and imply a seeking curiosity similar to what might be found in a letter sent to the outer representative of a secret occult order.
This really should not come as a shock, since we find Howard writing marginalized fantasy fiction at one of the high points of America’s occult revival. The pulp magazines were one of the prime markets for organizations like the AMORC and the mail order mysticism popularized by publishers such as de Laurence, Scott and Company. And naturally, writing in the genres that he did, Howard found the imagery of Theosophy and the occult provided the raw framework from which to work. Although Conan, Kull and Co. are among the most earthy examples of the swords and sorcery genre, Howard’s cosmic vision sneaks through in stories like “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a transcendent vision of the cosmos where lines between the celestial, the earthly, and the extra-dimensional blur into a frictious mix.
Jeff Shanks’ article “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of William Scott-Elliot” (in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2) provides a historical analysis of some specific Theosophical influences that went into framing the landscape of Howard’s work. But it seems to me that one of the more important aspects of this subject, and one that is a bit more ephemeral and subtle to trace than the mere origins of his influences, is the question of how Howard’s writing interacts with the esoteric tradition itself. These interactions are so prevalent in his work that in many instances he seems to utilize some of the same processes used by Theosophists such as C.W. Leadbetter in hopes of gaining an authentic vision of antediluvian worlds. Howard gives us a surprising opportunity to examine the strange chemistry that occurs when a certain psychology, no matter how seemingly mundane, acts as a catalyst to a potent stream of occult influence. His example also leads out to the realm of other authors who experienced something similar, and eventually to a general insight about the relationship of channeling, mediumship, anomalies, and visionary trance states to the creative imagination. Read the rest of this entry
The link between creativity and the paranormal or supernatural is an old and enduring one, beginning with ancient ideas about the muse, daemon, and genius, which connected the inner world of artists and poets to the realm of the divine. For a detailed laying-out of this point, see especially chapters one and two of my A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius.
This link has received an increasing amount of very prominent attention in the past couple of years. Jeffrey Kripal, for instance, has written (in his book Mutants, Mystics, and Superheroes) about the bizarre synchronicities and paranormal perturbations that have long attended the work of comic book writers and artists, some of whose fictional envisionings have had a disturbing tendency to manifest in real life.
In a more formally scientific vein, clinical psychologist and parapsychologist James C. Carpenter devotes an entire chapter of his new and paradigm-defining book First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life to exploring the connection between psi and creativity. He writes, “The human act of creation, the production of some extraordinary poem or symphony or play or scientific theory, seems as mysterious and awesome as the furtive flashes of preknowing or distant seeing that we term psi. Human in their expression, both seem somehow extrahuman in their source. Logical consciousness can marvel at them and study them, but it cannot produce them at will.” He then demonstrates with an abundance of experimental evidence and astute theoretical interpretation that psi and creativity “emerge from similar preconscious processes and are expressed by the same principles of operation.” (Look for a full review of Dr. Carpenter’s amazing book to appear here in the near future, and also at the New York Journal of Books, where I may be coming online as a reviewer.)
Then there’s the case of Robert Anton Wilson, who not only experienced the link between creativity and paranormality in his own life (as I explore in considerable depth in my essay about his, Aleister Crowley’s, and Timothy Leary’s interlinked engagement with a “higher intelligence,” available in the October 2012 issue of the journal Paranthropology) but had very compelling things to say about it. The main source of this material remains, of course, his many books, and particularly the original Cosmic Trigger, which is an extended account of the way his life was upended and taken over for several years by daimonic and paranormal weirdnesses that appeared directly related to his creative philosophical and philosophical creative endeavors. But when you comb through his various other materials, including his articles, essays, and interviews, you end up frequently running into additional statements and one-off comments that he made about the very same subject.
A current case in point — current because I stumbled across it just this morning — is found in an interview he gave to UFO writer Sean Casteel in 1998. Wilson’s observation that “the writing process does have a spooky side,” and that it seems worthwhile to preserve and honor this recognition in the words and concepts we use to think and talk about it, as opposed to inadvertently dismissing the mystery with knee-jerk references to “the unconscious mind,” could serve as the seed for a lifetime’s meditation on, and fruitful practice of, authorial creativity as a primary path to realizing one’s destiny.
ROBERT ANTON WILSON: I’ll tell you, the movie [Wag the Dog] seems to be a combination of what happened in the novel [American Hero, on which the movie was loosely based], in which George Bush started a war to goose up his popularity without any sexual scandals to motivate him, and the sexual scandals of the Clinton administration, which came after the book was written. So it is another example of the astonishing way in which writers, using their imagination, take something that happened already and embroider on it and describe something that is going to happen later also. Writers often write about things they don’t know and only later they find out they were doing that. When I first wrote that Beethoven was a member of the Illuminati, that was a joke. Then I read a biography of Beethoven that made it seem extremely likely.
SEAN CASTEEL: But when you have cases like that of synchronicity between a novel or a movie and real events, is that something they can in any way do consciously or deliberately?
RAW: No, you’ve just got to, as William Faulkner said, “trust the demon.” That means trust whatever it is that drives you to create fiction, to write creatively — trust it and see what comes out. It is always astonishing when you find out that the demon knows more than you know. Norman Mailer calls it the “navigator in the unconscious.” You don’t have to call it a demon. Faulkner just liked to be Gothic.
SC: They taught us the same thing in a fiction class at college. The best stuff just kind of wells up from the unconscious of its own will.
RAW: That is the modern jargon for it. I actually prefer Faulkner’s poetic language, because the writing process does have a spooky side, which psychological models seem to ignore. But everybody uses the metaphors that work for them.
— Sean Casteel, “Robert Anton Wilson Q and A,” Conspiracy Journal, 1998
Image by frankenstoen [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Skeptics, Believers, and the Purposes of Parapsychology: Thoughts on Two Experiments in Unseen Realities
I’m afraid there is something missing in our cultural discussion of psi phenomena. With both sides (skeptics and the pro-psi crowd) mired in a battle of believers, and with scientific exploration devolving into polemical argumentation, the fact that parapsychology is an exploration of human potential and the boundaries of experience receives frequent lip service but isn’t actually kept at the forefront of the debate. The irony of this state of affairs is especially glaring in light of the terminology that parapsychologists have deliberately adopted for the purpose of establishing a neutral and disinterested realm of discourse. As Dale Graff, a physicist and former Director of the STARGATE Remote Viewing program, points out in his article “Resistances to Psi”:
Parapsychology is the science that examines phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP), telepathy, clairvoyance, remote viewing, and precognition. It also explores psychokinesis and distant healing, interactions that seem to be mediated by mental intention alone. These phenomena are referred to as “psi” — the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, meaning “unknown.” This neutral label helps minimize judgments about explanatory mechanism and cultural biases that might be associated with some of the older terms.
— Dale Graff, “Resistances to Psi,” 2009
The gap between the real scientific study of parapsychology and the ideologically slanted pursuit of foregone conclusions was illustrated in October by two separate and very interesting tests that were conducted on the phenomenon of mediumship. Each took a radically different approach from the other. One was conducted by three people — Chris C. French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, London, Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, and science writer Simon Singh — who designed an experiment that they presented to popular UK performers as a “challenge” to prove their mediumship. In the other experiment, Leonard George, a psychology professor at Capilano University, decided to try mediumship himself with the help of some training from the famous Spiritualist community at Lily Dale, NY.
As you may imagine, the differences in approach led to distinctly different results. It is really striking to consider George’s work immediately alongside the “psychic challenge” presented by French, Marshall, and Singh, because the difference in methodology brings out many important issues associated with the question of what exactly we’re seeking to prove with such experiments. Although experimental design should seek to explore deeper implications of the data, preconceived ideas about the data can lead to experiments that are designed to foster ideologically relevant results instead of providing a true picture of what is going on. This obviously occurs on both sides of the debate over the existence of psi, and it’s a problem that needs to be seriously considered. Read the rest of this entry
On November 4, The Telegraph reported that the field of ufology, at least as it’s viewed and practiced in Britain, may be dead or dying:
For decades, they have been scanning the skies for signs of alien activity. But having failed to establish any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Britain’s UFO watchers are reaching the conclusion that the truth might not be out there after all. Enthusiasts admit that a continued failure to provide proof and a decline in the number of “flying saucer” sightings suggests that aliens do not exist after all and could mean the end of “Ufology” — the study of UFOs — within the next decade.
— Jasper Copping, “UFO enthusiasts admit the truth may not be out there after all,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2012
This assessment comes from several expert sources, including Britain’s well-regarded Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue:
Dozens of groups interested in the flying saucers and other unidentified craft have already closed because of lack of interest and next week one of the country’s foremost organisations involved in UFO research is holding a conference to discuss whether the subject has any future. Dave Wood, chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (Assap), said the meeting had been called to address the crisis in the subject and see if UFOs were a thing of the past. “It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he added. “We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades. The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there. I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98 per cent of sightings that happen are very easily explainable. One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there. The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over.” He said that far from leading to an increase in UFO sightings and research, the advent of the internet had coincided with a decline … The issue is to be debated at a summit at the University of Worcester on November 17 and the conclusions reported in the next edition of the association’s journal, Anomaly.
These developments are in turn linked to the recent closing of the UK’s official investigations into UFO phenomena:
The summit follows the emergence earlier this year of the news that the Ministry of Defence was no longer investigating UFO sightings after ruling there is “no evidence” they pose a threat to the UK. David Clark, a Sheffield Hallam University academic and the UFO adviser to the National Archives, said: “The subject is dead in that no one is seeing anything evidential.”
Obviously, this is all quite interesting. But more than that, it’s highly significant, and not just for people who are directly interested in UFOs. Despite the fact that the Telegraph article perpetuates the perennial rhetorical and philosophical foolishness of dividing the UFO-interested community into “believers” and “skeptics” (and also uses the word “enthusiasts” to maddening effect), it’s a very valuable piece of work, because it points to a deeply meaningful cultural moment for the study of anomalous phenomena, and also, more broadly, for our collective understanding of the relative meanings and statuses of anomalies, paranormal events, and material science. Read the rest of this entry
Over at Silver Screen Saucers, the always-interesting Website about Hollywood’s long-running engagement with UFOs, you’ll find a very long and totally absorbing essay by author and illustrator Mike Clelland about “a deep dark hole of synchro-weirdness” that opened up for him when he rewatched the 1974 television movie The Stranger Within, which he first saw as a child.
Clelland begins by noting that
Something extremely strange is interwoven into the UFO phenomenon. There are weird coincidences and synchronicities that seem to merge with the overall topic in ways that defy any easy explanation. This includes a kind of predictive manifestation in our pop culture. If you dig just a little bit you’ll find that movies, radio drama, literature and (especially) comic books all have a way of anticipating the plot points of the unfolding UFO drama.
Then he goes on to examine the multiply entangled weirdnesses of the movie’s resonances with the djinn motif of I Dream of Jeannie (since both the movie and the series featured Barbara Eden in the lead role), the basis of The Stranger Within in a short story written two decades earlier by Richard Matheson, Matheson’s own synchronistic nest of ingoing and outgoing creative and philosophical influences, the role and reality of hypnosis and channeling in alien abduction research, the birth and evolution of the human/alien hybrid meme, its thematic links to Egyptian and Christian religion and mythology, and his own personal experience of “missing time” after witnessing an aerial light flash when he was 12 years old in 1974 — the very same year, again, that The Stranger Within aired on ABC.
Especially fascinating in the midst of this thoroughly fascinating long-form exercise in creative synchronistic reflection are Clelland’s musings on the implications of these matters for the experience of creativity:
Richard Matheson’s output over the last 62 years has been astounding. The consistency and breadth leaves me dumbfounded. His first short story was published in 1950 and for the next decade he really cranked ‘em out. The short story Trespass (the basis for the movie) emerged during that creative frenzy. Like his other early stories, it was printed in a pulp sci-fi magazine.
I am convinced that there is a very real power in the creative process, and when abandoning (or disciplining) oneself to this kind of artistic inspiration, something mysterious can unfold. The artist can somehow tap into deeper truths. The work-a-day routine of sitting in front of a typewriter (or canvas, or 2-ply Bristol) can be seen as a ritual act, very much like the forgotten alchemist who sits before his candle. Matheson must have been on fire during those early years, and something weirdly predictive seems to have been manifested in this tight little story.
These ideas have been explored magnificently by Jeffrey Kripal in his book Mutants and Monsters [sic] and by Christopher Knowles on his blog The Secret Sun. Both these authors have examined the strange emergence of mythology in the tawdry pages of super hero comics and low-brow magazines.
— “The Stranger Within: Foreshadowing, Unexplainable Pregnancies, Hybrid Children and the Creative Process,” Silver Screen Saucers, October 11, 2012
Note that Clelland has also made a longer version of the same essay available as a freely downloadable PDF (via Scribd).
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Is it just me, or is there a large-scale, culture-wide meta-pattern taking shape when it comes to the status of philosophical ideas of the “Big Question” variety? Are questions about the nature of personal and cosmic reality, and even of ontology itself, going mainstream and joining the more standard issues of politics and economics as matters of widespread, above-board focus and discussion? And are these somehow linked to a growing fascination — or obsession — with the morbid and macabre? And is this all leading to a simultaneously wonderful and disturbing sense of universal disorientation? Consider the following:
In recent years the John Templeton Foundation has made news multiple times with its high-profile funding of research into religious and philosophical questions and issues. Most prominently, they awarded a $4.4 million grant to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to study the question of whether humans have free will and a $5 million grant to University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer to conduct “research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior.” Obviously, these things run directly counter to the mainstream intellectual and scientific culture/climate where such issues and even the questions behind them have come to be viewed as suspect, worthless, and/or meaningless.
Now The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the ongoing efforts of the Templeton Foundation are starting to shift the intellectual playing field itself:
Read the rest of this entry
The message, upshot , or bottom line of this Liminalities installment is stated in the title. What follows is simply a sketch of the train of thought and reading, extending over several years, that inspires such an assertion, as spurred by David Metcalfe’s recent report from this year’s Parapsychological Association conference in “Parapsychology and Intellectual Integrity: Words of Advice from Dr. Krippner.”
In 2010 Marilynne Robinson published Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, a book drawn from her 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” Her thesis was that the influential fusion of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and philosophy in the works of such thinkers as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who argue that all human thought and activity is driven by and reducible to unconscious biological motives, has tended not so much to explain religion, art, and other quintessentially human endeavors as to explain them away, and that this in turn stems from a central attitude and approach that hamfistedly and unjustifiably attempts to explain away the very reality of human interiority. As a categorical contrast with and refutation of this approach, she emphasizes the reality and significance of the fundamental sense of “I-ness” itself:
For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself.
— Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 110.