Friday, April 29, 2011





Several years ago I had one of those experiences, which everyday life is probably full of on some microscopic, atomized, imperceptible level and which would fall into the category of the paranormal.










Now before we go any further I should confess that while I’m a life-long atheist I’m also not a sceptic in terms of the paranormal and in fact I don’t see any contradiction between these two positions. Or rather let me re-phrase that, I am a sceptic, in fact I’m deeply sceptical, but I feel that what is supposed to be scepticism these day is in fact something rather different that I’ve decided to call “neurotic materialism”: neurotic materialism is the violent assertion of rationalism in the face of any even mildly inquisitive approach to what has been deemed irrationalism, a kind of explosion of rage, often couched in terms that to me seem to parallel the discursive strategies of neo-liberalism and Capitalist Realism, that of the childishness of the believer, an absolute hostility against the refusal to be contained within the parameters of the scientific worldview or the rationality of the market system.






There has been a confluence of these two positions of course, I suspect that there’s also an overlap of capitalist realism and neurotic materialism especially among those who used to be seduced by the possibilities of an outside to both, alternate forms of social organization, areas of experience and perception outside the standard paradigms. Of course one of the foundational texts of capitalist realism is Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” and the irony here is of course that while the sceptical, scientific mind hunts down and destroys any deviation in the name of rationality the contemporary political rationality based on free markets and homo economicus rest in the fundamentally religious notion of the invisible hand. I don’t think NM is a response to the recent rise of religion or even of Islamic fundamentalism I think instead it’s mostly an off-shoot of the End Of History.











There’s a classic bit of N.M here in response to Phil’s posting a very interesting and rigorous discussion on the overlaps between the paranormal and contemporary physics. What’s certain is that the commentator hasn’t watched it but is instead simply responding in a not very detached, fundamentally emotional way to Phil’s desire to have a little bit more of an enlightened dialogue between the two fields. The response, then, in that way is a perfect demonstration of the kinds of hysterical, intolerant scepticism that always strikes me as developing out of the speakers own woundedness, a form of negative solidarity: I have had to close down my imagination, the free range of my enquiry in the name of maturity, and you must suffer along with me!











Now let’s also be clear: I have no truck with Hippies, with new-age stuff generally, with mediums and spiritualist but I think that there probably is a point at which what you might call the “hard paranormal” died off or at least was driven conclusively underground and forced to slum it with all kinds of tat-peddlers and wannabe-gurus. However, ignorant as I am, I think it would also be fair to say that if anything destroys simple, common-place conceptions of time, space and causality it’s modern physics. There’s a very interesting British writer, Andrew Crumey with whom my own life overlaps in a small way (he moved out of a house in Leeds and I moved in directly after him) whose work explores some of these complexities (Mobius Dick being an excellent example). I mean, pick up a copy of the New Scientist or Nature and it’s a head-fuck beyond the dreams of most speculative fiction.






But still, on to my own paranormal experience. It’s mild so don’t start getting anxious that it’s going to reveal hitherto hidden depths of madness and paranoia.











I woke up about six o’clock in the morning, a bright Summer Sunday as I recall, to go for a piss. As I did a voice in my head said one word to me very pointedly, it was clear and distinct cutting through the tangle of babble and scraps of memory and dream that float around and interweave, alternately thickening and weakening as you slide in and out of sleep.










The word was “interregnum”.











Interregnum. As I had a piss I puzzled over the word. I wasn’t even sure I knew what it meant: if it even was a word it was one I hadn't used, in speech, writing or even as part of my internal discourse, ever, as far as I could tell. Of course I’m interested in words, and annoyed by not knowing what one means, especially if it appears to be a word that is swimming around in there somewhere. I went back to bed. I slept for a few hours. I got up, ate breakfast, then we went into London to watch a film.






We got there a bit early and went for a walk around Soho to kill time. Inevitably I wandered into a bookshop and this being a Soho bookshop there wasn’t much in there of interest, lots of books on and of photography of course, a few pulpy novels. The person I was with started to look at something so I scanned around a little more attentively for something to read.





The only book that I could see that was of the slightest interest to me was a biography of Louis McNiece. I can’t remember the name of the book but there can’t be that many McNiece biographies out there.

I do remember however that it was on a low shelf so I squatted down to look at it. It was a thick, hardback edition and instead of opening it at the start and looking at the contents page I just opened it at random.










The first word I saw,sitting there in the middle of the page?










Interregnum.





I was of course completely stupified by this and immediately started explaining the whole incredible situation to my partner, who, while rather mystical about her own experience was suddenly drily and irritably sceptical about my own: it was simply co-incidence and if it hadn’t been a really statistically unlikely coincidence it wouldn’t have impressed itself upon me. Of course I know that argument and again, from the outside I can understand the scepticism, but for me, from the way this extremely low-frequency word had so pointedly arrived in my mind on the same day that I wandered into a bookshop, picked up the only book in there that was of interest to me, opened it at random and saw the same extremely low frequency word, well…






I’m sceptical about my own experience of course: it confirms nothing to me but still if there’s one thing I am sceptical about it’s the notion of linear time, and so I am prepared to imagine that in some ways when we sleep we enter a-temporality, that consciousness is fundamentally way of ordering what would otherwise be a kind of a-temporal miasma, so for me the idea of pre-cognition, of something from what the conscious mind delineates or fences off as time-yet-to-come but which the unconscious mind has access to as part of its base-level a-or-multi temporality being caught, trapped on the wrong side of the filter as you suddenly wake up, well that’s an idea I like to explore (especially in fiction as it happens).






So of course I’m sceptical but I’m also intrigued and exploratory and the hysteria of the neurotic materialist seems to me more childish, knee-jerk, emotive and irrational (and in many respects not very well informed) than that of the curious sceptic.






I’m sceptical about scepticism. Which is surely how it should be.

16 comments:

Phil Knight said...

"Neurotic Materialism" - yeah, that's very good, sums it up perfectly.

Spengler pointed out that the strategy of Materialism was to rebrand the incomprehensible as the "irrational". It's one of the many bizarre aspects of our culture that we're totally intolerant of the incomprehensible, whereas most previous cultures accepted it as a matter of course.

Dominic said...

There's a sort of unproductive face-off between neurotic materialism and hysterical anti-rationalism that squeezes out thoughtful curiosity on both sides, I think. Hysterical anti-rationalism says "what the *!?! do we know?", and refuses to be mollified by any form of positive knowledge (like, for example, the evidence of numerous double-blind tests that homeopathy is no better for you than a placebo). Neurotic materialism says that the universe imaginable on the basis of a given set of known regularities is the only possible universe: no pattern at variance with these regularities will ever present itself (or will have to be swiftly explained away if it does). Both positions are fundamentally anti-scientific.

Dominic said...

The other point about hysterical anti-rationalism is that it's seldom thoroughgoing: it's usually summoned up as a defense against rational interrogation of some particular manifest absurdity. Very few people are really comfortable with the idea of a universe in which absolutely any kind of implausible woowoo can be going at any time.

carl said...

these kinds of entrenched splits seem fairly recent to me...am i right to connect them to neoliberalism...at least in terms of time frame?

W. Kasper said...

'Occult' notions were quite common parlance among the British working class, passed on between generations ('old wives tales', omens, ghost anecdotes etc) but with the neoliberal era, it's rationalised out of the picture, or commercialized with celeb spiritualists, Mystic Meg's lottery tips etc. Certain aspects probably preceded Christianity, which banished its alternatives as violently as capitalism has. It's Weber's 'expulsion of magic' according to capitalist realism. Either/Or thinking is necessary for market 'choice', and homo econimicus isn't expected to think outside the box much. This late stage of neoliberalism seems to demand a bourgeois fundamentalism, whether its celeb skeptics like Dawkins (a middle-class identity movement) or the procession of lapsed leftists cheering on neocon wars. Like socialism, giving space for mystery or the uncanny is considered a hobby-horse for the naive or irrational. Probably ties in with recent social policies regarding the poor (ie. lost children who don't understand their own interests). As with socialism, experience can seriously question the official narrative of 'rationalism' - whether scientific or economic.

Phil Knight said...

This is kind of a huge topic really, adressed with intelligent neutrality by Daniel O'Keefe in "Stolen Lightning" and George Hansen in "The Trickster".

Basically, the paranormal has been with us for millenia, and though accepted as the norm in "primitive" band/clan/tribe societies, has always been anathema to civilised ones (the Greeks and Egyptians proscribed it as much as "we" do).

In reality, there are enormous gaps in our understanding of the universe, and there always will be, so consequently there will always be an incentive for any ideology to occupy this vacant ground. Wayne is correct in asserting that this is a natural domain for potential neoliberal domination.

The problem really is that humans are inherently uncomfortable with not knowing the answers to the big questions (How did life begin? What happens when we die?).

Instead of offering an honest answer (we don't know) materialism just gives an unsatisfyingly deflationary pseudo-answer (random chance/nothing), and attempts to justify this position by nothing more than an appeal to psychological hardness (only sentimentalists could believe otherwise).

I agree with Hansen in his assertion that we will never prove the existence of the paranormal, and yet at the same time we will never satisfyingly explain it away.

All we can do as individuals is acclimatise ourselves to the fact that there will always be aspects of life that are incomprehensible.
This isn't a hard task - it's the natural mode of existence for those who don't labour under the yoke of a rationalising superstructure that will admit no anomalies (i.e. most of humanity, most of the time).

ASHDAV said...

No, I don't think you're right to connect these splits to neoliberalism and the end of history rather than horror at fundamentalism, quacks etc. At the very least, like a good sceptic I demand that you provide some decent evidence for your conjecture, which itself seems to imply that neoliberalism is somehow "rational".

Maybe you're right that neurotic materialism does exist, but then it's hardly surprising that someone like Ben Goldacre might get exasperated when he has to debase himself by discussing Gillian McKeith.

Sceptics like James Randi are constantly investigating the paranormal, and providing an incentive for others to do so by offering large sums of money to anyone who can prove its existence. On the other hand, when it comes to something as asinine as homeopathy or astrology, once a theory's been discredited what's the point in trying to disprove it again and again? After all, there's not much debate surrounding alchemy these days.

And James Burke always was a tit.

carl said...

yeah, astrology etc isn't really the hard paranormal tho is it? and as i said i'm not interested in that, but i am interested in a lot of the counterintuitive and common-sense warping discoveries of both physics and biology...

re the overlap with neoliberalism...well again clearly there's a boost in new ageism in the eighties though i guess this is in some ways just the cottage industry of the 60s and 70s taking wing...and as for any empirical proof that the hard paranormal falls away at this point i would have to demonstrate that there was a consistent decline in say, T.V programmes, books, lectures etc and then even if i could do that i couldn't conclusively empirically tie it neoliberalism anyway.....

but then your beleif that it isn't, and is tied to the war on terror is no less a conjecture than mine...

so i can't offer you any proof, nor you i, we can only offer up ideas which might feel plausible or otherwise here...

re neoliberalism...all i'm saying is that neoliberalsim believes in, is posited on, the rationality both of economic actors and of markets...i don't suggest that beleiving in the rationality of these things is in itself rational...

ASHDAV said...

Forgive me if I'm a little confused, are you drawing an "end of history" type parallel here between the neoliberals who have "won" the economic debate and the materialists who have succeeded in banishing the paranormal from the agenda, or are you saying there's a parallel between the peddlers of voodoo economics and the peddlers of new age cures, the rise of free market capitalism and the rise of the commercial, "soft" paranormal? Or both? I don't know if you haven't made yourself sufficiently clear, or if I'm just too thick to understand you.

To support my own conjecture I would point to the fact that at least in the case of some of the atheists who have been accused of being excessively shrill, it has been their explicitly stated aim to attack fundamentalism and respond to events like 9/11, and there is a strong link between these people and sceptics like Randi, Derren Brown etc.

W. Kasper said...

Maybe it's more that spooky stories were taken away from grandma and monopolised by Sky TV etc., as much as skepticism is now in the safe hands of celeb experts like Dawkins.

carl said...

yeah actually i think its a complicated question ...i'd like to tie it up in a neat response but i can't...

my feeling is that at a certain point the hard paranormal (which is i think in certain ways tied to the cold war)is exiled, because it's complex and its ideas are not very congenial/comforting... and new age, which is, is a part of the neoliberal re-enchantment of the world...magical/exotic/touchy-feely...part of the Disneyfication...certainly not, as in the seventies, guys with phds exploring the spooky hinterland of physics and its possible overlaps with mystical insight...

there's also the rise of the rise of the religious right in the U.S to real financial and political prominence, a more tolerant and pluralist attitude in the uk later with the rise in faith schools and blair being openly christian etc

so the prestige of mysticism and religion, its increasing power and visibilty as a social force both in traditional and new forms is a huge growth industry right through the eighties and nienties....

i think there's an understandable backlash against this, which is doubtless given impetus by the war on terror etc...but i think that the growth of religion/mysticism in the west surely predates it...

at which point the baby gets thrown out with bathwater and any whiff of anything faintly paranormal somehow immediately relates to the crudest kinds of religious conjectures..

i'll give my dad as an example here

if i said, oh dad there's been these really interesting very rigorous experiments on telepathy in dogs by..

he would immediately shout Bloody Mumbo Jumbo and rant with his fingers in his ears for twenty minutes...so i think as an atheist he feels under attack, sees religion amd mumbo jumbo growing all around him and has developed this hysterical reponse wheras in the relatively more irreligious seventies he would probably just have watched "mind over matter" with respectful interest...

W. Kasper said...

Conspiracy theory seems to have replaced paranormal mystery - often among types given to religious/racial answers. Tea Party, EDL etc. have the more 'mainstream' theories (I say this as someone who believes a few, but finds most of them ridiculous). Weird 'blowback' from historical confusion, which right-wing media exploits for their own purposes. Teenagers are strangely conversant with a lot of it, but it's rare to meet kids as intruiged by UFOs, Loch Ness monster etc. as my generation was.

But yeah, a lot of it probably was a cold war thing.

ASHDAV said...

Funnily enough I had my own slightly "spooky" experience in connection with this post the other day. Never having heard of Louis MacNeice before in my life, I came across his name twice in the same day, first in this post and then in William Boyd's "Any Human Heart". Maybe someone up there, or something out there, is trying to tell me something.

You know what I think about all that though.

carl said...

Ha! MacNeice speaks from beyond the grave to you! truly hauntological, the spirit of the committed socialist poet breaks into your sceptical, liberal domain to lead you on to the next historical stage!

yeah..i think i'll reblog thalassa by MacNiece...now there's a poem about never giving up the struggle!

Anonymous said...

i'm the guy who left the original comment on the 70s blog and i'm a bit surprised by the fact you saw fit to make an entire post of it. i would say that i'm a socialist and opposed to neoliberalism BECAUSE of my materialism, not despite it. i'm also strongly against the persecution of muslims we have seen in recent years. i still think abstract ideas are crucially important in understanding the world around us. it's just that if paranormal claims had any validity, we would have seen some proof by now. perhaps some day we'll see that. (though i suspect not)

anyway ASHDAV has summed up my position better than i can right now (in a rush)

love your blog and would hate to think that we'd be ideological enemies, as it were.

james

carl said...

@ James actually ashdav is my ideological enemy number one!

kidding!!!!! LOL!!!!

yeah.. i certainly don't want you to feel like it's an attack on you personally or whatever...your comment just sparked of a train of thought that's all...

anyway, as is now customary i invite you to contribute to those blogs by sending me an email..

i wish ASHDAV would get his act together and accept my numerous requests for him to join them!!!