Strange Animals in the House of Knowledge: On Forteans & ParanoiaMonday, 15 June, 2015
Scientists always seek better ways of aligning their categories with what they take to be preexisting ruptures or boundaries in nature—the idea of “carving nature at its joints.” I love that phrase, because I have always been troubled specifically in certain divey Chinese restaurants when I see a fowl like a chicken or duck being cleaved contrarily to my Western understanding of anatomy, like through the middle of a leg or horizontally across the middle of the breast. Asian cooks seem to follow a completely different conceptual map of the animal, one that pays much less attention to skeletal structure—and joints—than I would.
It always reminds me of Borges’ fictitious Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are divided into the following categories:
“Paranoia” is in some sense just an unkind diagnostic epithet for people who draw connections that cut across hallowed cultural boundaries, connections that others cannot or do not wish to see.Those that belong to the emperor
Those that are trained
Mermaids (or Sirens)
Those that are included in this classification
Those that tremble as if they were mad
Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
Those that have just broken the flower vase
Those that, at a distance, resemble flies
This mad classification system is jarring (and funny) because it upsets our implicit Western understanding of logic, which is based on exclusive categories and nested sets, not sets that inevitably overlap (such as “belonging to the Emperor” and “Those that have just broken the flower vase”). Borges’ encyclopedia inspired the structuralist philosopher-historian Michel Foucault to write a whole book, The Order of Things, about the slowly shifting conditions of discourse that define knowledge in a given culture and time, or what he calls an episteme. Thinking about our own cultural categories, and what is thinkable and speakable within them, is crucial for understanding the marginal position of Fortean and paranormal topics within the modern, Western episteme.
The paranormal, as George Hansen has shown, consists specifically of boundary-crossing things, things that fall in our cultural cracks. These cracks are dangerous and dirty. He cites anthropologist Mary Douglas, who described how whatever transgresses boundaries or doesn’t stick within the confines of our familiar conceptual fences is experienced with revulsion. For instance, pigs were regarded as unclean by the ancient Hebrews because they were cloven hooved, like cows, yet did not chew a cud; it violated their cultural logic. Or, something as innocent as soil may be experienced as disgusting or repellant (i.e., as “dirt”) when it is tracked into a modern home, because it then violates the implicit boundary between “nature” and “culture.” (Protestants and other clean-freaks often respond to stray dirt in an apoplectic manner unbefitting its objective harmlessness.)
Fortean topics are perfect examples of the repulsive aura that surrounds boundary-crossing subjects. UFOs and ESP and Bigfoot, when talked about seriously, are repugnant to the mainstream mind, and mentioning them can put people off on a very fundamental level. There is some way in which these topics, in their inappropriate betwixt-and-between-ness, resemble private or even shameful bodily functions, or indeed dirt. This is beautifully depicted in Close Encounters, when UFO witness Roy Neary crazily drags dirt and plants into the family living room to assemble his Devil’s Tower model, as the neighbors look on in pity. The more we Forteans and anomalists display our strange, transgressive obsessions, the more the world shuns us as unclean, for reasons that are deeply epistemological. Thus being a Fortean can be socially (or at least, intellectually) isolating.
The Paranormal and Paranoia
People are repelled by margins, and they also distrust those whose minds are comfortable dwelling there. “Paranoia” is in some sense just an unkind diagnostic epithet for people who draw connections that cut across hallowed cultural boundaries, connections that others cannot or do not wish to see.
Nash himself said “I wouldn’t have had good scientific ideas if I had thought more normally.”
It goes without saying that there is a lot of paranoia in the Fortean world. As Hansen shows, paranormal topics tend to lead to paranoid thinking in those who go down the rabbit hole of UFOs, parapsychology, cryptozoology, and related areas of interest, although there is also a factor of self-selection: People who appear to be made paranoid by the study of the paranormal may have been in some sense paranoid to begin with; a nicer way of saying this, though, is that they start out open-minded and intellectually curious. In the cross-cutting demographic that attends to anomalies, you get a lot of people whose minds make connections that other minds don’t. Forteans, unlike more mainstream thinkers, allow their minds to “go there,” wherever “there” may be.
Scientific geniuses and artists are often pattern-seers too. Theories are patterns; new theories are made by people who have a knack for discerning them. When newly perceived patterns can be supported scientifically, it can push a field in new directions and rearrange our existing categories in ways that previously might have seemed as illogical as Borges’ encyclopedia. Thus to some extent, paranoia is always relative, defined in terms of a given episteme or paradigm. It is not often enough mentioned that great scientific theorists are usually guilty of creating some bad theories amid their better-known solid ones. A certain amount of theoretical ‘pareidolia’—if not true paranoia—just goes with the ‘genius’ territory.
I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago with the sad death of John Nash and his wife in a taxicab accident. Nash, the Nobel-winning mathematician immortalized in A Beautiful Mind, also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and among his ‘delusions’ was the belief that aliens were attempting to communicate with him via The New York Times. It is an important reminder that you frequently can’t have penetrating insight without a degree of wild imagination (some would say lunacy, but who am I to say he wasn’t being contacted by aliens via the newspaper?). Nash himself said “I wouldn’t have had good scientific ideas if I had thought more normally.”
Us and Them
Yet even if we philosophically acknowledge Indra’s net, the ultimate interconnectedness of all things, some pattern-seeing is too much an affront to reason to be helpful or useful. And it can serve to perpetuate the social marginalization of Forteans, and this marginalization can in turn contribute to paranoia, in a kind of feedback loop. Being isolated both individually and as a (small) group makes it difficult to triangulate ideas and apply proper critical distance, creating a perfect breeding ground for the creeping seeing of (probably) illusory connections.
Forteans often contribute to their own exclusion by taking an antagonistic attitude to the mainstream.
I recently I wrote about Mars anomalies, for example: While there are a handful that are genuinely perplexing (including, I am now re-persuaded, the famous “face”), these are tainted by a vast array of items that range from the absurd to the sad, such as “cities” feverishly discovered in photographic compression artifacts or plainly ridiculous “animals” somehow wandering about the frigid Martian surface. A failure to exercise critical discernment, coupled occasionally with a truly well-intentioned and democratic “anything goes” attitude on such sites, effectively exiles the entire subject from any serious consideration by the mainstream.
Forteans often further contribute to this problem of cultural exclusion by taking an antagonistic attitude to the mainstream, bitterly transforming the marginality of our areas of interest into some kind of conspiracy by the powers that be to hide the truth. Planetary anomalies and ufology are full of this kind of thinking, of course, but there is no area of Forteana that is untouched by it.
For example, I recently attended a talk by an outsider archeologist presenting very interesting epigraphic evidence for pre-Columbian presence of Celtic and other European and Mediterranean peoples in the New World, possibly as part of multicultural crews of ancient Phoenician trading vessels. While his evidence was compelling, he characterized mainstream archaeology’s resistance to this evidence in implicitly paranoid terms: “We’ve been lied to,” he said more than once, and compared the edifice of mainstream academic archaeology to a priesthood jealously preserving its hegemony against outsider thinking. It’s an unfortunate attitude that is both unhelpful to the cause of paradigm-shifting and also betrays an ignorance of the sociology of knowledge.
The Knowledge System
Scientific and academic paradigms are subsystems within the larger system of academic knowledge, which itself is a subsystem within a larger episteme (in Foucault’s sense) as well as political-economic-cultural world. Thus paradigms are effects of a constellation of sociological, economic, and other forces, including pressures on publishing, tenure, grant funding, etc.—forces tend to be conservative. Whenever consensuses are forged, it advances a field of study, but it does so by ignoring disconfirmatory data. For a field to advance in any direction, anomalies must be swept under the rug; if and when enough of those anomalies accumulate, paradigms may shift, but again at the expense of data that would disconfirm the new paradigm. It’s the sort of lurching oscillation between openness and closure that characterizes all kinds of systems, from the weather to cortical signaling in the brain to political structures to religious movements.
Whenever consensuses are forged, it advances a field of study, but it does so by ignoring disconfirmatory data. For a field to advance in any direction, anomalies must be swept under the rug.
I am not an archaeologist, but I am sure that the academic “priesthood’s” resistance to pre-Columbian anomalies is not that they are suppressing some big truth that they want to keep secret, but simply that they are human beings working within a knowledge system, subject to the same pressures of prestige, reputation, and status that are the academic equivalent of capital in the world of trade for goods and services. Whether you are selling ideas or cars, you are going to be biased, because you’re human. You want the world to buy your car, or your anti-diffusionist account of ancient New World culture, not the shiny new product of some upstart competitor. Your culture of academic insiders is going to encourage scoffing and mockery of the competition, because face it, that’s what humans do. We’re cliquish and classist and can be nastily closed minded, especially when we are in our little professional groups. (It doesn’t matter what the profession—all are equally bad.) There are also larger forces of cultural and political correctness (ideologies) subtly exerting an effect on what is seeable and sayable.
Given the limitations on his time, a professor who has been teaching and writing his whole life that sustained Old World contact with the New World began with Columbus and his men (not counting that minor blip of Erik the Red), has no incentive to consider sparse and often poorly provenanced evidence to the contrary. It’s not that he’s knowingly “lying” to his readers and students. The academic consensus he has worked within his whole life may indeed cause him to not even see evidence that would support another theory; but again, this is just human, and not evidence for conspiracy or deception. The more the accumulating anomalous evidence comes in a paranoid package—as “revelation” of “secrets” that have been “silenced” and concealed by academic “lies”—the less incentive the tenured have to listen.
This is not to defend the knowledge system or the governing ideologies—systems can always be improved and ideologies critiqued or overthrown. But what may look to outsiders like a conspiracy of lies and secrets is often just an effect of the inertia of systems to change, the result of countless different interacting factors that are, each individually, perfectly innocent. Those systems are always being renegotiated and modified to make them work better, but change is always sluggish from the viewpoint of outsiders, such as the far-seeing paranoids and Forteans on the margins.
Subjects Presumed to Know
In approaching the problem of entrenched dogmas and how to think about undercutting them, I have taken a lot of inspiration from a group of outsiders and mavericks at the discussion forum Applied-Epistemology.com. Buried in the pages of discussion on that site are enough thrillingly persuasive revisionist theories of history and archaeology (as well as a wide range of other topics, including continental drift and cosmology) to keep a casual lurker occupied for days. But it is a crowd that approaches its problem very differently than we Forteans are often used to.
Careful ignoral is just an effect of the sociology of knowledge in a highly partitioned and cliquish academic space.
They are not conspiracy theorists, for one thing. Their M.O. is to simply to pick apart the received historical wisdom on a subject by examining how it is that academics really know what they claim to know (i.e., they apply epistemology). What they frequently find is that accepted paradigms are rooted in little more than academic tradition, and that that tradition has its roots in various scholarly echo chambers leading back, in many cases, to original sources of dubious merit.
The ‘leader’ of this band of knowledge deconstructors, M.J. Harper, whose deliciously irreverent and mind-expanding books I’ve reviewed before on this blog (for instance here and here), has apt terminology for the kinds of resistance to anomalies encountered by revisionists. My favorite Harperism is “careful ignoral”: the tendency of specialist scholars to defer anomalies to other specialists on the presumption that the answer to a challenging question is likely to be found in someone else’s field of study. It’s not unlike Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic concept “the subject presumed to know”—the neurotic assumption that someone else possesses all the answers—but here appearing as a defense mechanism for academic specialists to avoid cognitive dissonance. As Harper writes, tongue only somewhat in cheek, “Whenever there’s an insoluble anomaly, academia makes sure that there’s a carefully inserted fissure just where the anomaly is. That way, neither side need take responsibility”—a comment that fits well with what Hansen has observed about the relationship between anomalous/paranormal subjects and the less-policed intersections or boundaries between cultural categories.
Harper’s first book, for example, is a thrilling and rather devastating application of his pet critical method to the history of the English language. That that history is controversial is not something you would ever guess, given an origin story that has been recited confidently by English professors and linguists for centuries, enshrined in the heaviest and densest of reference books (the supermassive OED, around which all lesser English dictionaries obediently revolve), and equally importantly, popularized by everyone’s favorite fantasy writer. (Middle Earth being essentially the poetic Imaginal of the Anglo-Saxon tongue J.R.R. Tolkien studied and taught for his day job.) Yet this origin story, Harper shows, is so anomalous in the history of languages as to be, really, when you examine it even for a few minutes, totally unbelievable.
There is no other known language that ever transformed not only its vocabulary but its entire grammar over any span of time, let alone a couple hundred years—the span between the Norman invasion of 1066, when the Anglo-Saxon leaders of the English people were overthrown, and the first “Middle English” texts like those of Chaucer (which are basically just modern English with French spelling). When you trace the evidence for the story that what we now speak is a mix of French and an otherwise forgotten Germanic tongue brought over from Denmark in the Fifth Century back to its sources, you find little more than politically-motivated Renaissance-era scholarship, numerous probable forgeries (which were rampant at the time), and a self-reinforcing academic echo chamber that has sustained many, many careers over the centuries since then.
The much likelier and historically more boring truth, which no respectable English scholar will dare countenance, is that the people living in what is now called England always spoke what we now call English—back even in the days of Stonehenge. The presumed “evolution” of our tongue from Anglo-Saxon and French is just a retrospective illusion produced by the haphazard and confused way English first emerged as a written language in the first half of the last millennium.
“The human brain is quite good at teasing out correct solutions when put to the test,” Harper writes, “but it’s much better at avoiding being put to the test in the first place.” He is explicit that academic buck-passing, for instance between historians and linguists and philologists and archaeologists and literary scholars and others whom the anomalies in the story of English would be asked to weigh in on, is not cynical or dishonest; “nobody here is being other than scrupulously professional. Being a specialist means knowing when to concede to another specialist…” The problem is that this daisy chain of deferrance becomes a neverending whirlpool that feeds on itself.
In other words, there is no “conspiracy” to have everyone think that Beowulf is the cornerstone of our language—no one is being lied to—it’s just that, at this point, so much has been invested in that particular story (there are whole university departments devoted to it, not to mention the edifice of the OED) that it is in practically nobody’s interest to question it—nobody except outsiders, that is. Careful ignoral is just an effect of the sociology of knowledge in a highly partitioned and cliquish academic space.
We could extend this kind of reasoning to the more science-fictional of Fortean anomalies too. UFOs, for example, are right in that giant fissure between the sciences and humanities, and nobody can even agree which sciences and which humanities. Most now agree that the recipe for a close encounter includes at least a dash of physics and a cupful of psychology, but what’s the ratio? Astronomy is no longer on the ingredient list for many, having been replaced by folklore and religion. But whatever your own preferred recipe, it is clearly the case that UFOs’ betwixt-and-between-ness has resulted in their not being studied seriously within any university department—i.e., careful ignoral.
UFOs are the ultimate hot potato, and the easiest thing to do with hot potatoes is to pretend they don’t exist.
But should it even be a problem for universities at all? In Messengers of Deception, Jacques Vallee reports a conversation with a retired U.S. Intelligence officer named “Major Murphy,” who pointed out to him that the apparently intelligent nature of the phenomenon properly takes it outside of the domain of science (and implicitly other scholarship) altogether: You don’t study intelligence scientifically, this man said, but with, well, intelligence—meaning that the proper domain of UFOs isn’t science or academia but various secretive arms of the government. Yet, as John Alexander has argued, careful ignoral seems to be the state of affairs in government, too. UFOs don’t fall squarely in the turf of any particular branch of government or the military; moreover, those all consist of massive siloed bureaucracies that don’t communicate well internally or externally, so responsibility has historically been avoided and deferred. UFOs are the ultimate hot potato, and the easiest thing to do with hot potatoes is to pretend they don’t exist.
The problem is, careful ignoral by multiple military and intelligence entities, coupled with the inertia and general out-of-touchness that characterizes such bureaucracies, looks to outsiders like a monolithic wall of silence, evasion, and lies, and this perception fuels the paranoia that is endemic among people with an interest in the subject. (It doesn’t help that some military and intelligence organizations appear to have used UFOs, and people’s belief in them, as smokescreen to disguise other, probably totally unrelated agendas.) That paranoia, through various psychological and social mechanisms like those I’ve mentioned, is self-perpetuating. Attempting to fill in the blanks, ufologists make connections that may or not be there in reality; and the more they make those connections, the more the outside world marginalizes them as kooks.
The persistent conviction that “the government” is keeping some kind of monolithic secret about UFOs or the presence of ETs on earth—a secret which could somehow be “disclosed”—is of course just another example of the neurotic/paranoid obsession with a “subject presumed to know.” Official silence or inconsistent dithering on the UFO topic really could indicate nothing more sinister than human and institutional discomfort with the anomalous. Yet … there’s no way of knowing for sure.
This is the epistemological problem we are up against as Forteans: Because knowledge is a social construct, truth is importantly determined by consensus; one person’s pareidolia might be another person’s great discovery. There is no objective arbiter, no one you can go to to “disclose” what the true state of affairs is. So whose consensus are you going to choose, that of the unimaginative but sober masses, or the paranoid lunatics on the margins?
Thanks to Eric at: http://thenightshirt.com/