Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The ugly truth about ufology

This week’s post, exceptionally, has been graciously hosted on two RRRgroup blog sites. It can be found at either:



Also, I will be taking a break for the month of August, resuming posting in September.

Lastly, I would like to invite people who might be interested to contribute a text (short or long) to Parasociology, or simply to provide comments, suggestions, and constructive criticism to contact me at: parasociology@gmail.com.

I will continue to monitor my e-mail during the month of August.

I wish you all a good second half of summer!!!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

UFOs and the aesthetic experience

This post may appear, at first, a bit off track but I think that some important insights can be gained from looking at the nature of the artistic (or more accurately, the aesthetic) experience. As I will try to show, psi effects and the aesthetic experience have a number of similarities, especially in the context of understanding the inner dynamics of the social unconscious. This linkage between psi and arts is inspired from reading an article in the field of cultural studies by Tim Dean. The full notice is:

M. Dean, Tim. (2002). “Art as symptom: Zizek and the ethics of psychoanalytic criticism”. Diacritics 32(2): 21-41.

Misunderstanding the social unconscious

This article is far removed from UFOs and ufology, but Tim Dean introduces a useful concept for parasociology out of his critique of how cultural studies interpret the social unconscious. The main trust of Dean’s critique is that writers and intellectuals in cultural studies tend to use the notion of social unconscious to suit their needs, without providing any possibility that their assessments can be falsified. In other words, anything and everything has been used to describe the content of the social unconscious without providing any ways to verify if it is indeed correct or not.

Dean focuses his critique particularly on the written work of Slavoj Zizek, who considers that the content of artworks is symptoms of problems in the social unconscious, and more generally as symptoms of our key but unspoken social problems. For those who do not know about Zizek, he is probably the most “in vogue” public intellectual in the United States right now, who wrote on a wide range of topics always using the same methodology of seeing symptoms everywhere. Zizek, in his approach, is strongly influenced by thinkers of the neo-Marxist school of thought, especially Althusser, who considered that the concrete reality of societies (i.e. capitalism) is what drives everything (i.e., known as the infrastructure), and that ideas, perceptions, and arts are simply a reflection of the infrastructure (i.e. symptoms of). The neo-Marxists, and those influenced by them, added a psychoanalytical twist, in looking at how ideas that support and justify capitalism get into people’s head, and how they can free themselves from such alienating ideas. In other words, the alienating ideas of capitalism are the content of the social unconscious.

As a large number of researches have shown since the days of post-structuralism that such perception is seriously flawed. Capitalism and its various expressions benefit many in many different ways; alienation is a relative term and not only linked to economical matters; and therefore the content of the social unconscious is not driven by anything in particular, but rather by an indefinite number of drivers. The implication is that the content of the social unconscious is not something fully understandable through the language of consciousness, and therefore Zizek and others cannot claim what they do about the social unconscious. Although we can sense that the social unconscious has at a certain time a particular content, it is almost impossible to define it clearly. To reinforce the analysis of this particular aspect of the social unconscious, Dean proposes to use the concept of “enigmatic signifier” from the philosopher Jean Laplanche to acknowledge our limited access to the social unconscious, especially when it comes to the aesthetic experience.

Psi and the aesthetic experience

The aesthetic experience is by definition something that changes someone. After one contemplates long enough a master’s painting, for instance, something changes inside that person at the unconscious level. That individual is now a different person, even if such difference is small and very subtle. I think it can be said the same thing about the psi experience. When someone sees a UFO, and not even in a close encounter context, he or she is changed. A new interest for UFO emerges, or for the paranormal in general, or some serious questioning about whether UFO are ETs from outer space. Similar changes can be caused by seeing a ghost, leading to wondering about if there is a life after death, etc.

Where it becomes interesting is when the change is effected at the social level. As Dean wrote in academic terms, “extrapolating from Laplanche, I would suggest that as soon as one conceives alterity in symbolic terms, one sees that otherness exceeds intersubjectivity and intercultural dynamics; otherness is the property of discourse, and enigmas of otherness are exacerbated by art” (p. 38). In other words, arts changes societies and how we relate to each other, but such a change remains enigmatic. It is enigmatic because the content of what will emerge cannot be predicted, nor in which way people are changed. To use Dean’s terminology, the aesthetic experience is autonomous from our consciousness; the social unconscious drives its effect on society according to its own rules, and these rules are radically distinct from what the consciousness is used to. It is in this sense that Dean wrote, “I am suggesting that the concept of relative autonomy pertain to not only cultural production but also to cultural reception: relative autonomy at the level of reception implies a fundamental irreducibility of sense or understanding” (p. 38).

Dean goes as far as saying that the purpose of arts is actually to disrupt in an unpredictable way what is happening at the conscious level. “We might even say that art’s purpose lies in intensifying those aspects of alterity that otherwise remain dormant in everyday discourse and conventional intersubjective communication. From this perspective, the disruption of normative communication would signal a proximity to aesthetic experience, and art would be defined less as the secluded reserve of high culture than as the practice or experience of disruption through which something like the enigmatic signifier becomes palpable” (p. 38).

Similarities between the aesthetic experience and the psi experience can be further expanded as both violate norms (the former violates norms about the conscious meaning of reality while the latter violates conscious norms about what is possible and impossible—as discussed in previous posts). In both cases there is an enigmatic signifier at play that cannot be reduced to an object easy to analyze. As well, both arts and psi can be construed as intensifications of what is dormant in the unconscious. Finally, both are acts of creation, as discussed in a previous post.

If Dean is right, then it is possible to construe social psi also as an enigmatic (or unpredictable) attempt to disrupt the collective consciousness, to distract us from ourselves in order to change us as a society. Concretely, this means that there is no point in attempting to predict a UFO wave, for instance, nor to predict what social impact it may have. (A similar statement could be made for predicting individual sightings and how such sightings affect the individual witnesses). However, it is possible after the fact to envision a number of possible tensions within the social unconscious that might be responsible for the phenomenon. This remains an interpretative task where more than one explanation can co-exist. In any case, however, no one should think that it can be turned into an exact science.

I think the concept of “enigmatic signifier” is useful to describe the crux of the problem about UFOs and other psi effects. As an exact scientific explanation cannot be produced, the phenomena remain mostly outside the realm scientific debates, and are essentially outside any cut and dry description that could resolve the issue once and for all. Those who still try to use an exact science approach to the problem (like many ETH ufologists and the old style parapsychologists) are continuously disappointing because they cannot be predictive in a cut and dry way.

The similarities between the psi and the aesthetic experiences are certainly providing sobering thoughts. After all, this means that parapsychology (and wanna be ufology) should see themselves as something more akin to the humanities (history of arts, philosophy, classical studies, etc) rather than to the sciences. As for parasociology, it is not too problematic as it is already influenced by qualitative approaches and the interpretative tradition of sociology.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reading Notes – Parapsychology and the Unconscious

This post is reviewing a somewhat older parapsychology book that is made of previously published articles and book chapters from the 1950s up to the early 1980s by Jule Eisenbud, a now deceased but reknown parapsychologist. In spite that those texts were written some time ago, they are still relevant today as they seek to reconcile parapsychology and psychoanalysis, an incomplete task up to this day. Even if the focus remains on the individual unconscious, there are a number of useful notions for parasociology in general, and for the study of the UFO phenomenon in particular. The full notice is:

Eisenbud, Jule. (1983). Parapsychology and the Unconscious. Berkeley: North Atlantic Book.

Psi as continuously influencing the unconscious (both individual and social)

The author opens the introduction with a provocative thought from the eminent Cambridge University philosopher C.D. Broad, who once wrote in his book Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research that: “our understanding of, our misunderstandings with, our fellow men; our general emotional mood on certain occasions; the ideas which suddenly arise in our minds without any obvious introspectable cause; our unaccounted immediate emotional reactions towards certain persons; our sudden decisions where the introspective motives seem equally balanced; and so on; all these may be in part determined by paranormal cognition and paranormal causal influences” (p. 11).

Such a statement is clearly appealing to parasociology, as paranormal interactions among human beings are the core topic of the discipline. Furthermore, as Eisenbud notes, C.D. Broad was not only making a statement about paranormal phenomena, but he was also showing “his conspicuous disregard of the dynamic role of the individual unconscious...” (p. 12). This last statement is an important one because it means that the individual unconscious is not an isolated island that would be only in relationship with others through “normal” communication channels. Furthermore, the individual unconscious is not only constructed through socialization and filled with collectively shared ideas, norms, values, beliefs, etc., but it is also in constant contact with others’ unconscious (both individually and collectively) through parapsychological means. From the psychoanalytical other side of the coin, Eisenbud considers that not only the issue of socialization needs to be taken into consideration much more comprehensively by psychoanalysts, but it is important to incorporate the “efforts of Freud, Jung and other psychoanalysts to draw attention to the significance for psychology of parapsychological data” (p. 12). In other words, psi effects, which are originating and emanating from the unconscious, constitute a core dynamic of the mutual interactions between individuals and their society.

Eisenbud highlights, in particular, the work of the Viennese psychoanalysts Wilhelm Stekel and Sigmund Freud who extensively investigated telepathic dreams in the 1920s. One of the interesting findings was that the so-called transference and counter-transference processes, where the patient and the analyst adjust to each other’s personality to create an effective therapeutic relationship, are also partly telepathic. Freud “convincingly showed that a patient in treatment was sensitive to material of concern to the analyst, and that the reaction which was evident in the patient’s associations—for instance jealousy—could be related dynamically to this material, just as if the patient had acquired conscious knowledge of what was taking place in the analyst’s mind. Other investigators soon extended these observations. The picture emerging from cumulative data [...] showed man’s paranormal capacities to be very much in the service of his adaptational needs.” (p. 20).

Additional researches were conducted later on by Ian Stevenson (Telepathic Impressions: A review and report of thirty-five new cases. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970), and by Russian scientists (Vasiliev, L. Experiments in Distant Influence. New York: Dutton, 1976) that showed that people are actually influencing each other through paranormal means. As Eisenbud notes “through the domain of the ‘psychic pathology in everyday life’, in any case, man is seen as actively utilizing his latent paranormal capacities to bring about desired changes in his environment in the same way he uses other adaptational means at his disposal” (p. 21). This view of psi is very much in line with François Favre’s contention that psi is something very common, ordinary and natural, as discussed in previous posts.

This view of psi can have important consequences for the study of UFOs, if one considers that UFOs are a specific and idiosyncratic use of psi to provide some form of adaptation to our environment. Certainly, Méheust’s contention that UFOs, through the material generated in the sci-fi literature, expresses our collective concerns about our technological society appearing to be out of control can be further supported by this approach. In the same vein, one can find a direct linkage between the findings of Roll and others about poltergeists being generated by psi subjects through unconscious and unexpressed feelings of anger and frustration.

What is missing in Eisenbud’s approach, however, is the social nature of our interactions. Not only human interactions are mediated by socially shared language, culture, norms, values, ideas, etc, but they do occur also at a level that is properly sociological. For instance, interactions between social classes cannot be reduced to individual interactions. Commonly shared desires, sitting in a large number of individual unconscious minds, can have dynamics of their own. This can be observed in the emergence of ideologically driven movements, and there is already an extensive literature on this subject in political science. As well, the classical 1896 study of Le Bon of the crowd mentality also illustrates such dynamic very well. Is it possible, then, that large groups’ desire can produce social psi effects? It is possible to refer to a number of parapsychological studies to illustrate that it is indeed possible. The Global Consciousness Project certainly offers interesting insights. As well, the notion that there are more male births after a major disaster or a war is well established statistically, and has been perceived as a collective psi effect by some parapsychologists.

Methodological insights

These issues have discussed in earlier posts, leading to same roadblock based on the conflicting views of psychology versus sociology. However, Eisenbud also tried to relate his research with the work of anthropologists and brings some interesting methodological insights for the study of social psi. For him, “the objective of psi in primitive societies, however much the styles of its experience and use may vary between different ones, is to secure information and to gain control over external events. [...] This order is itself ‘magical’ in that categories of time, space and causality which constitute the framework of the primitive’s experience of reality, are far less rigid, far more infused with human thought and will, than the way in which these same categories are envisaged and experienced in non-primitive societies. To the primitive, thus, behaviours based upon power of thought and will to accomplish things are reality oriented. He simply makes use of processes considered inherent in the social order and the universe.” (p. 81)

Then Eisenbud offers a not so flattering contrast for Western societies stating that “paranormal experiences of various kinds, regardless of the belief systems of those involved, continue to be reported with quantifiable frequencies in highly developed Western societies which have no institutionalized means of integrating such experiences into their beliefs and practices [...]the useful information conveyed in the experiences, and the realistic benefits derived from them, are practically nil [...] the experiences themselves come to be regarded as freak occurrences, meaningless coincidences or at the most inexplicable intrusions from an only vaguely conceived supernatural realm” (pp. 81-82).

Seen from this perspective, then it becomes clear that ETH ufology, especially in its New Age form, represents an institutionalizing attempt to integrate the UFO phenomenon within a belief system. As Jacques Vallée has shown in his prophetic book Messengers of Deception, in a Western context such belief system can easily be manipulated for other purposes. In any event, what is key here is that the UFO phenomenon, as a particular idiosyncratic expression of the Western mind in the 20th and 21st centuries, is produced and integrated unconsciously as incidents rather than as an outcome of a conscious collective will. From a methodological standpoint, this supports further the notion that one needs to look into the content of the socially shared unconscious to understand the UFO phenomenon, and that looking around the phenomenon is more important than looking into the phenomenon itself.

Eisenbud also considers that traditional repeatability as a fundamental condition to produce scientifically valid knowledge is highly problematic when it comes to study the unconscious and psi effects. For him, psi capabilities are constantly in operation, which means that variables cannot be isolated. Psi subjects in parapsychological experiments have their unconscious psi capabilities operating before, during, after the experiment. Parapsychologists (and their staff) unconscious psi processes are in interactions with the ones of the subjects. Furthermore, for him, psi capabilities being found in unconscious processes are also “locked up” with our other impulses (death and aggression in particular) that are repressed through socialization to allow us to live in society. Metaphorically, psi is the treasure guarded by the dragon (impulses) in the remote castle (the unconscious). To get the treasure in full, then you have to unleash the dragon or kill it (to become a psychopath or a zombie). Hence, the best we can do is to sneak in the castle and steal a few pieces of gold while the dragon is sleeping (i.e. try to get the most out of spontaneous psi effects as they occur). It is in this context that he wrote that “the essential contradiction in attempting a repeatable experiment really lies in the fact—and this is the crux of the matter—that in so doing we are asking the ‘raw’ psi principles to serve two masters and to do two opposing things—to keep the laws and at the same time breaking them; or, put another way, we are asking psi, so to speak, to work against itself and to deliver into our hands the instrument of its overthrow”. (p. 162-163).

According to Eisenbud, we need to break away from the “rather too narrowly and rigidly slanted conceptual framework of the physical sciences” (p. 167). Better results can be achieved, from a methodological stand point, by focussing instead on the intent (both conscious and unconscious) of all those involved (including the experimenters). Parapsychologists have studied conscious intents and found limited correlations with psi results (see Heath 2003). However, they do not study unconscious ones because it requires more than a simple survey to collect data, and that’s where they miss the boat (which is Eisenbud key point). From the point of view of parasociology, there are some well-known methodological ways to assess collective unconscious intents through text analysis, participant observations, focus groups, and artwork analysis. These methods, like in the case of parapsychology, are not economical to study a single sighting, but are of interest for UFO waves (and are probably use to studying hauntings). In many ways, this is exactly what John Keel did when he researched the material for his book The Mothman Prophecy. And let me be clear here, once more, he was quite successful because he spent most of his energy looking around the phenomena.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Thursday, July 9, 2009

UFOs, the unconscious and morphic fields

As discussed in several previous posts, a better understanding of the inner dynamics of social psi is required to develop a comprehensive explanation of the UFO phenomenon. In turn, a better understanding of the shared unconscious processes is required to study social psi effects. Yet, studying the unconscious, shared or individual, represents a significant challenge. Two different authors are used here to provide some interesting conceptual notions for the understanding of the social unconscious dynamics: Otakar Machotka and Rupert Sheldrake.

Further insights about the unconscious

If we want to discuss the content of the unconscious using the language of reason (i.e. of consciousness) then we face the problem of translation. The unconscious is the realm of emotions and symbolism, where analytical logic is of limited use. Even defining the unconscious is problematic. I found, however, an interesting definition in a sociological but long forgotten book by Otakar Machotka, The Unconscious in Social Relations: An analysis of unconscious processes in personality, society, and culture (New York: Philosophical Library, 1964). Machotka defines the unconscious as “unresponsive, undiscriminating, conditioned, subliminal, unattending, insightless, unremembering, unlearned, unrecognized, ignored, and unavailable to awareness” (p. xxi). In other words, the unconscious plays by its own rules, it is naive and on auto-pilot, and works in parallel to consciousness.

Machotka also introduced a short but useful discussion on the issue of tensions in the unconscious. Both individuals and societies can experience “the feeling of tension which may arise 1) between two different ideas, norms, values, obligations, ties, or attitudes, 2) between an idea, norm, value, obligation, tie or attitude, and a reality, 3) between those and the tendencies, drives, and wishes of the personality” (p. 149). Then he adds that “As long as the tension-feeling is weak or mild, it generally is unconscious or operates unconsciously. But even strong tension-feelings sometimes may remain unconscious or disguised. Unconscious tension-feelings are with us most of the time despite general inclination of the human personality to remove or reduce tensions” (pp. 149-150). For him, these tensions are resolved unconsciously, most of the time, by the selection of norms, values, etc., that are the most appropriate socially. Hence, for Machotka the unconscious is also socialized and contributes to maintaining existing social norms.

What Machotka does not discuss, however, is when there is a tension between an idea, norm, value, etc., and a reality unconsciously known but yet to occur. In other words, what happen when there is new knowledge acquired by psi means (and therefore residing in the unconscious) that is in conflict with the norms and values also found in the unconscious? Furthermore, it is also possible to think that if such knowledge acquired through psi means creates a strong tension it will remain unconscious, as both components of the tension are specific to the realm of the unconscious.

If Machotka is right, then this has significant implications for the study of UFOs, and parasociology in general. If the original psi effect is the pre-cognition of emotionally charged events, then as pre-cognition tends to work better in the short term, UFO events and dates of significant events are important indicators (as in the case of Barney and Betty Hill, the Black Thursday, and the events linked to the Mothman Prophecy described by John Keel ). In this context, UFOs are an attempt to resolve the tension by the unconscious and by bypassing consciousness, but to alert the consciousness which has greater ability to deal with tensions. UFOs are possibly a last resort option for the unconscious, or believed to be so by the unconscious. Hence, UFOs are rather symptoms of a (social) problem present or future, rather than a meaningful phenomenon in itself.

The original psi effect leading to the acquisition of new information, however, can be of more than one source (e.g. unconscious telepathy between people, access to the Absolute Knowledge, etc.). It is likely that the idiosyncratic nature of the information will inform the nature of the macro psi effects, which are idiosyncrasies too (e.g. UFO, ghosts, Virgin Mary, ghost ship, Mothman, etc). For the researcher, the challenge is to bring to the consciousness the psi generated information and link it to the paranormal events. In the case of precognitive social psi and UFOs, it is probably easier because the information will become publicly known in the short term. Similarly, in the case of poltergeists, family or work tensions can be found easily too. But for many other phenomena it may be locked up in people’s unconscious forever, or the phenomenon is actually a synthetic PK form drawing on multiple sources (as Rogo (1986: 91-113) found out in the case of poltergeist hauntings).

Lastly, this also means that the occurrence of shared psi information about an event to come cannot be predicted, nor the unconscious calculus that there is no other options than using PK to express the tension (because it is based on what the unconscious believes to be true), and therefore it is probably safe to say that for ontological reasons UFO sightings and waves cannot be predicted through reasoned analysis. In the light of the above discussion, the best that can be done in terms of prediction is to identify conditions that are favourable to the emergence of macro PK effects, which may or may not take the form of a UFO sighting or wave. However, UFO sightings and waves can be explained after the fact (like most social phenomena).

Rupert Sheldrake and morphic fields

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who became parapsychologist (like J.B. Rhine), and became famous for writing A New Science of Life (London: Victoria Works, 1981). Sheldrake postulates that “all self-organizing systems are wholes made up of parts, which are themselves wholes at a lower level, such as atoms in molecules and molecules in crystals. The same is true or organelles in cells, cells in tissues, tissues in organs, organs in organisms, organisms in social groups. At each level, the morphic field gives each whole its characteristic properties, and interconnects and coordinates the constituent parts. The fields responsible for the development and maintenance of bodily form in plants and animals are called morphogenetic fields. In animals, the organization of behaviour and mental activity depends on behavioural and mental fields. The organization of societies and cultures depends on social and cultural fields. All these kinds of fields are morphic field” (Sheldrake 2006, 32).

Sheldrake also considers that there is a psi field, and I would add that like I discussed in a previous post there is also a social psi field that is arranged in fractal way with the individual psi fields. For Sheldrake, as well as for Dean Radin, we are all connected through this field, but our connection is greater when there is a social bond between people. Morphic fields are also stronger as they become habits, and unconscious routines. This led him to study telepathy through the pre-cognition of phone calls (being more effective when the caller is a known person), and animals coming back to their master, even if separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometres. Sheldrake also studied the feelings of being stared at, which implies that someone else tries to get closer and thus disturbs the field.

This is a neat concept for parasociology that also postulates that there is a “social glue” at the psi level. It is useful to study psi effects in close knit societies, but also when the social psi field is being disturbed by emotionally charged events perceived by the unconscious. Sheldrake’ s concept of morphic field can also help to explain that when there are less entrenched social habits because there is social ongoing change, weak social fields are generated. This in turn can explain that UFOs may have been less prevalent in the last 15 to 20 years because globalization and homogenization of cultures are in full swing (i.e. we are beyond the initial shock). UFOs, or other paranormal phenomena, will return probably when a new “normal” will be established and then disturbed. In any event, looking for a “strong” social field that is disturbed by social psi effects remains an interesting indicator for the study of UFOs.

I would also use Sheldrake`s concept to explain hauntings, and thus maybe the so-called CE4 or alien abductions (as well as other paranormal events that share a similar narrative structure). Hauntings can be a social psi field that became routinized by people believing that a specific house is haunted. This habit can be passed from one generation to the other, and explaining how a house can be haunted for decades or even centuries. Sheldrake`s concepts helps to reinforce my contention that hauntings are actually social events part of a social structure, while being a PK reality as well. The more people talk about the ghost, and the more they research death people’s life to “fill in the blanks” the stronger the psi fields will become, reinforcing its specific idiosyncratic content (i.e., the ghost of Mr. X). Could it be possible that alien abductions are also routinized psi effects, part of a particular psi field? This would explain the persistence of the phenomenon, as well as its fairly consistent narrative structure. The more the phenomenon is discussed and formalized, the more its idiosyncratic content stabilizes. This would also explain that in spite the relative decline of UFO sightings the number of CE4 events remains relatively stable. UFOs sightings and CE4 would be only linked by the assigned idiosyncratic content (ETs), but are generated through different social psi processes.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet