The Trickster Companion of Parapsychology and Anomalistics
Renaud Evrard1 (Chair), George P. Hansen2 , James E. Kennedy3 & Jeffrey J. Kripal4
1. University of Lorraine, Nancy, France
2. East Windsor, New Jersey, USA
3. Colorado, USA
4. Rice University, Houston, USA
The relationship between paranormal phenomena and the trickster figure of mythology has been long recognized (e.g., Radin 1956; Combs & Holland 1990). The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001) by Hansen gave an extended overview of applications of the concept to the fields of parapsychology and anomalistic psychology. It addressed their institutions, history, research, theories, paradoxes, and personnel. The paranormal seems to have affinities with certain social characteristics (e.g., liminality, anti-structure, marginality, communitas, transgressiveness, reflexivity, reversibility) and aversions to others (e.g., centrality, structure, hierarchy, bureaucratic power). In sum, trickster theory describes a recurrent socio-anthropological pattern that makes some ordinary observations in our fields intelligible, when taken in hindsight. But does this fruitful theory make specific predictions that would make it testable? What is its empirical basis? And what are its limits? With this panel discussion, we offer an opportunity to address an often neglected theory that illustrates how the humanities may shed light on paranormal research. Combs, A., & Holland, M.(1990). Synchronicity: Science, Myth, and the Trickster. New York: Paragon House. Hansen, G.P. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Philadelphia: Xlibris. Radin, P., with commentaries by Kerenyi, K., Jung, C.G. (1956). The Trickster: A Study in Native American Mythology. New York: Schocken Books.
1 — The Paranormal, the Trickster, and Structuralist Concepts
George P. Hansen
East Windsor, New Jersey, U.S.A.
For thousands of years, humans have used religious rituals to influence, channel, and hedge off paranormal/supernatural forces. They have used myths to describe, explain, and understand those forces. Half a century ago, ritual and myth were illuminated by anthropologists (e.g., Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, Victor Turner, Rodney Needham) using structuralist ideas. Concepts developed by them and later post-structuralists (e.g., Jacques Derrida) apply to the paranormal. Structuralist approaches often used comparative analyses, which are commonly employed in the humanities but less often in the sciences. They facilitate development of non-reductionistic theoretical perspectives. The trickster is a character type found worldwide in myth. He embodies a collection of abstract qualities, including disruption, deception, marginality, supernatural powers, transgression, boundary crossing, and violation of sexual taboos. These qualities may manifest in individuals, small groups, even entire cultures. Structuralism’s ideas gave insight into the trickster; the works of Barbara Babcock and Laura Makarius are noteworthy in this regard. Pertinent concepts include binary oppositions, liminality, anti-structure, communitas, betwixt and between, interstitiality, and status reversal—all are directly related to classification. These ideas illumine marginality, outsiderhood, stigma, and magic. All help explain the nature of psi as well as the position of the paranormal in Western culture. Psi subverts commonly accepted categories. It blurs the boundaries between the binaries of self and other (telepathy), present and future (precognition), present and absent (clairvoyance), mind and matter (PK). But psi categories themselves break down; clear distinctions among them cannot be made. The labels can designate experimental procedures, but they do not identify different psi mechanisms. Likewise, the century-long debates on super psi vs. spirit communication reflect similar problems of classification. Earlier cultures used rituals to mark transitions such as child to adult or living to dead; the rituals typically included an in-between (or liminal) period that highlighted transitional conditions. The liminal realm is an area of indeterminacy and ambiguity (and is sometimes sacred); within it, customary rules and social roles are suspended. Characteristics of liminality include social instability, change, flux, transition, fluidity; it thus has parallels with William Braud’s model of lability and inertia in psi processes. Liminality and its governing archetype, the trickster, tend to subvert or dissolve hierarchical social structures. The term anti-structure expresses that quality. Psi is frequently accompanied by anti-structural effects. Ghost research groups rarely achieve long-term existence and almost never own buildings or employ fulltime staff. Parapsychology laboratories never became securely integrated into mainstream bureaucratic institutions of government, industry, or academe. Social marginality is a type of liminality. Parapsychology is marginalized and stigmatized. Marilyn Schlitz, in her Parapsychological Association presidential address in year 2000, explicitly disavowed the use of the word parapsychology. There may be no better illustration of the stigma and marginality of the field. For more than a century, parapsychologists have striven for respectability and general acceptance by cultural elites. They failed. Any comprehensive theory of psi must explain this plight.
2 — Coming to Terms with the Trickster
James E. Kennedy
The failure to produce convincingly reliable psi effects after 80 years of experimental research indicates that fundamental factors are not yet understood for the operation of psi. George Hansen’s characterization of the paranormal as a trickster includes the property that psi effects can be striking and reliable for a period of time, but then seem to actively avoid sustained or useful effects. The working assumptions for most parapsychologists are that psi is an unconscious process that is directed by human motivation and generally operates without conscious awareness and without conscious intention. The trickster properties of psi indicate that more is involved than just the motivations of the participants and experimenters. Anyone who has motivation about the existence or occurrence of psi could unconsciously use psi to influence the world to conform to their motivations. The outcome of psi experiments may be influenced by the social and cultural background of motivations and associated psi. Competition among different motivations could produce unreliable psi effects. Another hypothesis for the trickster nature of psi is that psi effects are due to influences from people in the future acting backwards in time or from entities in additional dimensions such as spirits of deceased persons, angels, God(s), karma, or some type of dualistic higher consciousness. These ideas are not scientifically parsimonious, but they reflect the fact that people often experience psychic phenomena as a higher power guiding them. Psychic experiences tend to inspire a more spiritual worldview, similar to mystical and near-death experiences. The ultimate goal of experimental research is to convert the paranormal into technology. If psi is converted to technology, the mysterious, mystical, spiritual aspects will be lost. The message from the trickster is that converting psi to technology is not going to happen. Experimental research with good methodological standards should in the next few years resolve the debates about the validity of the trickster ideas. The weaker methodological practices in the past may have obscured the trickster characteristics of psi. If the trickster ideas prove to be correct, those whose interest in psi is based on control and application—the masculine approach as described by Rhea White—will probably abandon psi research. The striking differences among people in the occurrence of and attitudes toward paranormal phenomena need to be recognized and investigated. People appear to be living in different worlds with regard to the paranormal and often seem to have little ability to comprehend and accept other worldviews. Psi as technology versus psi as a spiritual experience is one of many distinctions that are needed. Psychological, sociological, religious, cultural, and life-event factors all need to be considered in understanding the differences in worldviews about the paranormal. I also think that it is important to distinguish between experiences that appear to be truly paranormal versus experiences that are likely wishful thinking or other mistaken interpretations. Based on my experiences, actual paranormal experiences may be a component of a larger supernatural factor that creates a destiny for a person to have certain opportunities, experiences, and challenges in life.
3 — Why You Are So Scary: Understanding the Demonization of Parapsychology among Evangelical and Fundamentalist Communities
Jeffrey J. Kripal
Rice University, Houston, U.S.A.
The present paper is a development of the last section of my J. B. Rhine Lecture in 2014 entitled “Authors of the Impossible: What the Humanities Have to Offer Parapsychology.” I want to pick up here where I left off there and address some of the contemporary Evangelical and fundamentalist readings of parapsychology as “demonic.” More specifically, I want to read these as a distorted insight into the Trickster, transgressive or anti-structural nature of paranormal phenomena. I will engage the work of George Hansen on the anti-structural nature of psi phenomena and put this in conversation with the work of the historian of religions Rudolf Otto on the left-handed sacred, the philosopher Georges Bataille on the mystical dimensions of transgression, some recent work on the mythical figure of Satan as a Trickster figure, and the scholarly literature on the paranormal in Roman Catholic hagiography and theology (where it tends to be much more appreciated). My paper will engage the question of why parapsychology is still the object of various marginalizing, misinformation, and maligning strategies from both cultural elites and religious leaders. As these strange bedfellows suggest, parapsychology occupies a most interesting liminal or both-and position in the broader culture, somehow managing to offend both ends of the ideological spectrum. On the secular side, I think the primary reason parapsychology is rejected is because its basic theoretical impulses around the nature of mind represent an implicit challenge to the base metaphysics of modernity and its instrumental reason, namely, materialism and mechanism. This is hardly news to you. So let me proceed immediately to the religious reasons, which I think are much deeper historically, trickier to understand, and so much more difficult to get a handle on and answer. I think there are at least three religious reasons that parapsychology is rejected and psi is feared. None of these are necessarily conscious reasons. Indeed, I suspect they are usually operating partly or even entirely unconsciously. The first is what I will call the “Problem of Deification.” It is a direct function or result of Christian theology and is particularly prominent in American culture. I would not universalize this problem and suspect that the dynamics are very different in other theological contexts, say, in Jewish or Islamic contexts, and I know they are very different in Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist ones. The second reason is what I will call the “Problem of Religious Authority.” This problem can be found in different theological contexts and in different degrees. Again, I would not universalize it. The third is what I will call the “Problem of Black Magic.” Historically speaking, it is the deepest of the three. It is also, I think, the one most resistant to an adequate response or resolution. Alas, it can probably be universalized. I fully realize that none of these theological, institutional, and deep historical backgrounds easily translates into a conscious strategy of response or defense in our present. Indeed, I think some of it, if made fully conscious and public, might well make the backlash worse. Still, there is also a part of me that thinks that this deep religious background to the resistance does indeed help. For one thing, it makes sense of the otherwise senseless. For another, it makes the unconscious conscious. For still another, it can help us to better understand and appreciate our own intellectual radicalism.