Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Secret Life of Hoaxes. Part 2.

Most hoaxes are crudely executed, and are revealed as such with relative ease and brevity. In other cases, we find varying degrees of ambiguity. Some hoaxes start out as a genuine phenomenon, and gradually stoop to fakery when a particular demand develops for a miraculous font which has ran dry. Other hoaxes may have kernels of truth scattered within their myriad falsehoods, which remain fundamentally difficult to disentangle; as we argued in a much older post, disinformation operates on a Cretan liar basis of truth and falsehood mixed together in a subtle and almost indivisible fashion. Strangest of all are those cases of obvious, blatant hoaxes which nevertheless seem to have weird, ripple effects that create a degree of ambiguity/irresolution. A good example of this is the Santilli alien autopsy film; it was plainly a fake made in the nineties, yet a variety of military insiders confided to researchers that they remembered seeing the film back in the sixties.

The point of all this is that hoaxes exist in a slippery space that tends to unseat, even if only in minor ways, the most crucial of our logical/ontological binaries. Consider the example of Carlos Castaneda's infamous Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus. Beginning with The Teaching of Don Juan in 1968, Castaneda wrote some twelve books which purported to detail his training at the hands of the alternately humorous and severe sorcerer. The books were best-selling trailblazers that influenced a generation of seekers, largely introducing the shamanic revival and concepts of alternate realities to the nascent New Age movement. But was Don Juan even a real person? Today, nobody really knows for sure if the Don Juan cycle of books are literal biography, partially fictionalized, wholly fictitious, or a conscious and deliberate allegory that aims to express a philosophical truth in the manner of Plato's dialogues. (A similar uncertainty principal surrounds Whitley Strieber's narratives of encounter with non-human intelligence which began with Communion.)

Imagine, for example, that you came into possession of a painting by an Old Master, and cherished it for decades. Then, suddenly, after about a decade or so, it is finally revealed to you that the picture is a fake. Immediately, your whole perception of the painting changes. Are all your years of appreciation and pleasure invalidated by this sudden awareness of the painting's origins? (Are any insights you might have gleaned from Don Juan, whom you only ever experienced as a disembodied spirit mediated through paper and ink, invalidated by the possibly that he never existed outside of that paper and ink?) What is the ontological status of the painting in relation to you if its forgery is only discovered after your death?

While this may seem like cheap sophistry, it relates to the manner in which categories construct our realities. (The painting itself hasn't changed, only its status with regard to the symbolic system whereby the merit of the picture is judged. In a society where ingenious forgery was esteemed, the possession of an original would be a gross disappointment.) In the elaborate Christian geography of the afterlife, outlined in the Divine Comedy and elsewhere, the virtuous pagan who was born prior was the revelation of Christ is consigned to Limbo for all eternity. (Limbo was also said to be the permanent home of unbaptised babies. Though adjacent to hell, Limbo was believed to be a reasonably pleasant place, albeit somewhat downscaled from the eternal bliss of heaven. I don't believe that Limbo was ever the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Its curiously stilted and bureaucratic logic suggests the crude literalization of a myth; its undeniably resemblance to life here on earth suggests that our universe may itself be a crudely literalized myth.) In many respects, successive epochs have consigned the polymaths of the Christian era to a Limbo of ignorance. Being born prior the advent of the Scientific Age, it is their ill-fortune never to understand the true nature of the physical universe.
This, however, restates the question raised by never discovering that the painting is a forgery. Were the universes of Newton, of Einstein, and of Heisenberg, present in the universes of Homer and Augustine, waiting for a sufficient ingenuity to be discovered? Or, from the perspective of those temporal coordinates, bounded by the mortality of those who lived within them, are the later discoveries so abstract as to be almost meaningless? Is something true in a particular era, even though it never registered within the conceptual framework of the majority of men who lived in that era? Once again, we are returned to the significance of consensus categories and symbolic systems in the crystallisation of truth, and to Henry James' assertion that “truth happens to an idea, it becomes true, is made true by events.”

More Sophism will be added to this in the next Post, until, by an Affect of Steady Accumulation, a Point Almost Credible will Emerge, alluding to the Essential Pliancy of Reality, and its Particular Vulnerability to the Occultic Works of Hoaxers and Other Magicians.

Inherent Vice.

Today sees the release of Thomas Pynchon's new psychedelic noir Inherent Vice by Penguin Books. I have to admit I've grown very cold towards Pynchon's books in recent years. However, I still have great fondness for his eighties aging hippie fanstasia Vineland, and going on the following trailer, Vice is very much in that mold, and very much in the mould of the Coen's essential masterpiece The Big Lebowski. (A Jeff Bridges audiobook recording of this would be incredible!)

Vintage Paranoia!

Jon Ronson is a highly successful British journalist who has carved out something of a niche for himself documenting the shadow world of fringe belief communities for a sardonic middle-class audience. Developing a style which mixes the participatory character of Gonzo journalism with a particularly British sense of self-deprecatory humour, Ronson's most successful works include The Men Who Stared at Goats, an exploration of the US military's study of New Age and paranormal techniques, and Them: Adventures with Extremists, a picaresque account of his experiences in the company of individuals such as David Icke, Randy Weaver, and Alex Jones. (A movie version of The Men who Stared at Goats, with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacy, is slated for a November release, while Universal and Jack Black have apparently bought the rights to Them.)

Ronson's take on fringe topics is a little too sardonic, commonsensical, and basically sane for my liking, but he has done some good work, including infamously infiltrating the New World Order summer soiree Bohemian Grove with Texan conspiracy firebrand Alex Jones. Way back in 1998, Ronson hosted For the Love of....Big Brother on Britain's then edgy and alternative Channel 4. Airing well into the late night/early morning stoner slot, For the Love of.... basically gathers a motley panel of remote viewers, spook-watchers, and etheric healers, to discuss the New World Order, microwave weapon technology, remote viewing, and advanced surveillance techniques. While most of these topics are quite familiar to today's paranoia saturated culture, to a random pre-9 11 audience of insomniacs and students, this must have seemed like pretty mind-blowing stuff. I love the little details that date the programme – Ronson smokes throughout, which just never happens in panel TV today, and the panellists quaintly regard mobile phones as solely the preserve of the wealthy upper class. (Tune into Channel 4 late at night today, and you are likely to be transported into the sickly retro-futurist design of the Big Brother "reality TV" house, an annual media event that turns the constant surveillance state, and the dystopian nightmare imagery of the twentieth century, into fetishistic mass entertainment. Strange times.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tripping the Switch: The Secret Life of Hoaxes.

The scholar of the paranormal is perpetually bedevilled by the ingenuity of the hoaxer and the charlatan. Our august discipline suffers in two significant ways. First of all, there is the question of credibility, and the perception of us within the wider academic and scientific communities. It seems that once man first longed for the miraculous, the numinous, and the mysterious, he became subject to the confusing topography of what I label the labyrinthine bazaar of the spirit. Consider, my friends, the ambience of the ordinary bazaar: a bustling, gaudy emporium of tent and stall, where traders entice the weary buyer with a wealth of purely material fare – with such clothing, ornament, and bauble as renders the human body itself a marketable commodity, and such roasted nuts, sweetmeats, and mulled wines as satisfy the shopper's delicate palette. It is certain that some of the traders charge an exorbitant fee for their wares, and practise all kinds of wiles to induce the buyer to make a strumpet of his purse. (The common expression to sell the sizzle, not the steak, actually derives from a real practise. In the Moroccan bazaars of the late Medieval period, the trader Ishmael Alveretto was avowed the pinnacle of diabolical ingenuity in matters of persuasion. The most famous of all his feats was the ability to sell - at a discount price – bags of steam from his barbecue, under the pretence that the steam contained the concentrated nutrients of the meat, and sufficed for a meal when inhaled. It is said that he was eventually set upon by a mob of his erstwhile gulls, who had grown emaciated from months of inhaling Alveretto's steam, and the salesman himself was burned alive.)

Nevertheless, the merely physical bazaar possesses an essential honesty, but what of the metaphysical one? Witness the decadence of the Church in in the late medieval period, reduced to a high street boutique of the afterlife, trading in indulgences, relics, and the presumptuous exchange of purgatorial leniency for hard currency. The Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel (1465 – 1519) is credited with the zeitgeist-defining couplet “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs.” Stroll beyond the Catholic concordance of the spiritual bazaar, and one finds oneself in the bold hub of the Age of Reason, lost in a deafening babble of mesmerists, theosophists, rogue geometricians of the Fourth Dimension, etheric and mediumistic parlour conmen of every persuasion. To this day, the study of the anomalous and the strange has had its credibility damaged by the shamelessness of the spiritual huckster, and the inveterate credulity of his gulls.

Further to this, the prevalence of hoaxing provides another pressing difficulty for the paranormal community, and this second difficulty lies in the ratio of signal to noise. Consider, for example, the UFO phenomenon. It is often said that the study of UFOs is bedevilled by a high preponderance of noise to signal, the noise in this case being defined as elements of the UFO enigma which are rationally explicable unknowns, as against the signal of truly anomalous events. A class of physical noise is generated by the misidentification of ordinary aerial vehicles, planetary bodies, and atmospheric phenomenona. A class of intellectual or sociological noise is generated by cultural and journalistic sensationalism, urban legendry and folklore, deliberate government misinformation, and generally speaking, the whole corpus of socio-mythic pollution which influences, or even creates ex nihilo, a particular interpretative bias. When we ad to this intellectual noise the prevalence of hoaxes, it becomes easy to imagine that perhaps the subject under study does not exist at all, but is rather a complex self generating feed-back system, a concordance of error and misidentification which continues to evolve in complexity as the pursuit of one erroneous assumption generates another. (Some wise men have avowed that the whole corpus of knowledge and science may itself be such a self generating feed-back system. This is the problem of the circularity of truth, which is so admirably expressed by William James: “There is no noncircular set of criteria for knowing whether a particular belief is true, no appeal to some standard outside the process of coming to the belief itself. For thinking just is a circular process, in which some end, some imagined outcome, is already present at the start of any train of thought....Truth happens to an idea, it becomes true, is made true by events.” Attend to the nuance; these words are particularly germane to our theme.)

To what category of ontology does the UFO belong, being so complex, treacherous, and potentially illusionary? True scholars of the mystery have invariably found that it is a liminal, twilight category; that it seems to maintain its existence somewhere between the realm of exterior physical reality, and interior psychological projection. It remains impossible to prove, perhaps even to fully credit, yet equally impossible to fully reject. The pre-eminent French ufologist Jacques Vallee recognised this liminal ontology as perhaps the defining characteristic of the UFO: “they exist in the domain of the in-between, the unproven and the unprovable......the country of paradoxes, strangely furnished with material “proofs”, sometimes seemingly unimpeachable, yet insufficient....this absolutely confusing (and manifestly misleading) aspect may well be the phenomenon's most basic characteristic.”

We are drawn, invariably, into the paradoxical world of the Cretan liar, into the timeless machinations of the trickster, perhaps our most indelible and mysterious mythic archetype. But to what avail? What does it mean for something to be neither fully real, nor entirely unreal? If it is true that men create this world, to a certain degree, by virtue of certain pre-exist categories within their brains, and wider sociological categories of consensus which these brains have agreed among themselves, is it possible that the errant creatures of human belief could attain a transitory, residual existence within this matrix? Or does it go further than this? It seems that the notion of objectivity, or of a physical universe wholly unaltered by the prism of consciousness, is the primary paradigmatic casualty of the modern age. Is the next Copernican revolution to be one which will fundamentally alter our conception of the nature of matter, and its relationship to consciousness? And if this is the case, are the flying saucers and other similarly paradoxical phenomenona a kind of koan designed to nudge us towards the collapse of old and untenable categorical distinctions?

As all these questions remain relevant when we consider the ontological status of hoaxes, particularly those of a particular degree of complexity. Do hoaxes remain, as they have begun, harmless and entirely unreal? Or do they partake of an unconscious black magic, a blurring of ontological category, a tripping of some essential switch in the building blocks of reality, that grants them, like the homunculus of alchemical lore, a life of their own?