Uncanny experiences as therapeutic events

Encounters with the ‘uncanny’ - or ‘supernatural’ as it is often labelled in Euro-American societies - are commonly conceived of as a ‘premodern' (Latour, 1993) mode of experience and characteristic of cultural ‘otherness’ (Kapferer, 2002). However, social scientific research has shown that such experiences are also commonly reported in post-industrial, contemporary social settings (see Dein, 2012). It seems that disenchantment, as Weber (1922/1967: 139) put it, has only had a limited effect, as people’s engagements with the supernatural, the magical, and the otherworldly have not vanished in technoscientific societies with highly specialised education systems (see Josephson-Storm, 2017). By uncanny experiences we refer to ‘extraordinary’ sensory and embodied experiences that are often unexpected, uncontrollable and quite powerful.1 Such experiences range from premonitions and visions to encounters with spiritual or otherworldly beings, and from telepathic communication to contacts with the deceased.

This chapter draws upon a letter archive of reported encounters with the uncanny. The letters have been written by a diverse group of people living in Finland. Instead of embarking on a quest to determine the actuality or ‘truth’ of such experiences, as might be the objective in the fields of, for example, neuroscience or psychiatry, we draw from classical anthropology (Lévi-Strauss, 1968; Mauss, 1902/2001) in investigating uncanny experiences and related practices as social phenomena. We approach the textual narratives through the question of how do uncanny experiences promote therapeutic knowledge production and world making. We start from the empirical observation that as part of autobiographical narratives uncanny experiences are often made sense of through their transformative and fundamental effects. We argue that the uncanny becomes meaningful - and thus quite ‘real' - in the sense that it shapes one’s actions, life paths and conceptions of oneself and the surrounding world in ways that often promote stability and healing.

Engagement with the uncanny has been intertwined with ameliorating practices in the healing traditions for ages. In the rich historical research on the topic, the ability to mediate between different worlds and to work with extraordinary forces is considered a crucial part of the healer’s competence (Eliade, 1964; in

Finland e.g. Honko, 1960; Siikala, 1978). Furthermore, in healing traditions the extraordinary in its various forms appears as a crucial resource for knowledge and for strengthening the bonds between people and society; here the process of healing is not limited to a patient-healer dyad but involves a multiplicity of actors, for example, other people such as fellow villagers as an audience that confirms the evidence of the ritual efficacy. The ritual healing involving the uncanny is a mechanism for bringing the effusive, transient, and fragile qualities of social relations into the light of the visible (Turner, 1968).

Due to modem medicine’s marginalisation of traditional healing practices, healing by and through the uncanny is now commonly discussed through the notion of ‘therapeutic culture' - a term referring to the rise of individualistic life management discourses in Euro-American societies. In particular, discussions on new spiritualities and New Age address the topic of otherworldly connections. Sociologist James Tucker (2004) has analysed what he calls the ‘therapeutic theologies’ of contemporary healers in the US, arguing that modern healers practice an extreme form of self-centred and hyper-individualised therapeutic culture through which the self is elevated as its own master and the individual notion of any definitive ‘truths' are ultimately rejected as one is encouraged to forge one’s own path in life. By reading through the healers’ conceptions of the world and their social positions and lifestyles, Tucker (2004: 167) claims that such New Age practices work unlike religion because they ‘do not bind people to a larger group of people or society nor require them to submit themselves to higher authority'. However, this is not necessarily the picture we encounter in the context of this research, as it seems that such experiences need not only be about being the author of one’s own life, but also very much about being led and cared for, as well as about caring for others. In addition, uncanny experiences are also not only about constant change, but also about stability in the face of unpredictability, as they appear profoundly connected to the maintenance of social relationships. In this chapter we show how the uncanny can and does become part of people’s therapeutic assemblages precisely because it entrenches connections and stabilities in the middle of personal, political, local and global crises.

For our analysis of the textual data, we employ a Latour-influenced framework of actor-network theory. This enables us to treat uncanny objects (i.e. beings, voices, feelings, sensations) as ‘actants’ that in cooperation with other actants influence the world and contribute to (re)arranging it. We ultimately argue that uncanny experiences and the narration of these experiences can be understood as ‘therapeutic events’, that is, as significant sequences of truthmaking in terms of the self and as sequences of actualising social (care) relations. In this chapter we will first elaborate upon our theoretical framework by relating it to the dominant neuroscientific ways of understanding uncanny experiences and by introducing the concepts of actants and events. The data and methods will then be presented in more detail. This is followed by three analytical sections, the division of which is based on our thematic reading of the letters. Finally, we will provide brief conclusions.

Uncanny experiences: cognitive anomalies or socially significant life events?

In the wake of scientific rationalism, uncanny experiences in the 20th century have been widely understood through psychiatric discourses labelling them as pathological. In recent decades, however, neuroscientific research has had a remarkable impact on cultural conceptions and representations of such experiences. Using new imaging technologies, neuroscientific research has managed to show how uncanny experiences have an actual (i.e. visible and measurable) correlation in the brain (Raij et al., 2009; Silvanto, 2015; Mobbs & Watt, 2011; Blanke & Arzy, 2005). Discussions based on such research have thus emphasised experiences such as hearing voices without a visible source and out-of-body experiences as normal instead of merely pathological. Nevertheless, the research carried out within the natural scientific paradigm still tend to treat uncanny experiences as deviant (see Schmidt, 2016) or as temporary ‘error’ states of an individual brain. The idea of the uncanny as an error state has been consolidated by a wide range of research within cognitive psychology (for an overview, see Rancken, 2017)2 which has also influenced seemingly different fields of research. For example, though sympathetic to the understanding of uncanny experiences as inherent in the faculty of the human mind, the phenom-enologist Matthew Ratcliffe (2017) promotes the idea of the uncanny as a disturbance of the modal structure of the mind. By constructing uncanny experiences as disturbances or errors such accounts overlook the fact that these experiences may appear as highly meaningful to the experiencer and crucially affect their life in ways that sit uneasily with the idea of a mental error that needs to be corrected (see also Luhrmann, 2018).

Setting aside the conception of mental error, we argue that the narratives of uncanny encounters often construct such experiences as therapeutic instances that serve as crucial resources for self-understanding, identity construction, healing and work on one’s social relations. By this we mean that in the analysed narratives, the uncanny appears as a central building block of the cultivation and craft of one’s identity and one’s social surroundings, no matter whether the actual encounters or happenings themselves are described as positive or unsettling; as ‘natural’ or ‘mysterious’. In Lévi-Strauss’ (1968) terms, uncanny experiences are a bricolage. For example in our letter data, people often make sense of these experiences by employing various modes of knowledge, such as modern science, mysticism, parapsychology and religion. Drawing from this idea of the bricolage, we further approach the uncanny through a Latourian (2005) framework which problématisés clear-cut dichotomies such as science-religion, real-not-real. natural-unnatural or human-non-human, and thus attempts to question some of the basic paradigms of scientific rationalism from which mainstream scientific accounts on uncanny experiences typically draw.

Like the social scientist Latour, several anthropologists have rejected the notion of the inanimate nature of objects, a notion which deprives objects of agency and personhood (Descola, 2013; Viveiros de Castro, 2004). The so-called ‘flat

Uncanny experiences as therapeutic events 191 ontology' rejects divisions between different levels of being (e.g. social-material, real-imaginary, natural-supernatural etc.). Latour has emphasised that in order to make sense of the social world, we need to consider objects - be they technical devices, human beings, ideas or words - as active participants in the course of action (Latour, 2005: 63-86); in this view, existence is not an a priori property of any ‘thing’, but rather it can be claimed that things exist only in the sense that they affect the world around them. Any social reality can then be said to consist not only of human action, but of (material, ideal, semantic or perhaps metaphorical) objects that afford certain actions while preventing others (e.g. a door may both suggest and enable a passage, and prevent or redirect movement) and thus very concretely act by affecting how the world works (see Latour, 1992). In this tradition, it is typical to speak of ‘actants’.3 The concept of an actant denotes an attempt to surpass the human tendency to see agency or the ability to act as an exclusively human trait. Any ‘thing’ that affects the world is an actant, an actor in its own right.

This suggests that whenever the social scientist wishes to analyse a human practice (such as therapeutic world making), the practice in question should be made sense of as a collection of actants - an assemblage, as all actants within an assemblage make the practice what it is. Intuitively, it may be relatively easy to conceptualise human life coaches (see Yankellevich in this book) or digital self-tracking technologies (see Bergroth and Helen and Freigang in this book) as actants in the sense that such objects may (or may not) notably influence one’s self-image and, most of all, they really exist in the world! However, we argue that in the sense of people’s everyday therapeutic assemblages and world making, uncanny actants can be just as effective and therefore just as ‘real' in shaping one’s life (see also Honkasalo, 2017a).

The idea of assemblages connects to the idea that the world or reality is never fixed-in-place, but is always subject to change and becoming. Each actant in a network of actors affects the assemblage so that the assemblage contingently ‘hangs together' and is, in this sense, multiple (Mol, 2002). In assemblages, different actants fall into relations with each other; they 'happen' to each other. For the purposes of this chapter, we then employ the Latourian idea of an ‘event’ that relates to a rupture or a happening through which the world comes to hang together in a distinct fashion. After all, everyday life is usually not characterised by a relativistic stance towards the world; human beings do constantly establish truths - or at least relatively stable conceptions - about themselves, about others, about the things they perceive and the things they practice. In Latour's (1999) philosophy of science, the concept of an event is supposed to replace the notion of a ‘discovery’, which implies that one could merely discover a fact -for example, a fact of nature or a fact of history - which has always been there and exists irrespective of the observer, just waiting to be found. ‘Events’, in contrast, refer to occurrences or sequences - possibly temporally unspecific and covering a long period of time - in which actor-networks ‘set up’ the world and make it known in certain ways. This is to say that ‘events [...] do not discover truth, but they make truth happen’ (Sansi, 2013: 453).

 
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