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


Glenda said...

Well it looks like you have been acknowledged for your research. It is too bad that instead of plagiarizing your work these para-cleptoes didn't comment on this blog and offer their views and opinions.... Have a great holiday and I look forward to more of your posts... As always excellent read... Glenda

Eric Ouellet said...

Thanks Glenda!

Have a good summer too!