The uncanny and work on the society

Elisa is a 58-year-old entrepreneur and former artist who has spent the last three decades of her career helping, healing and educating others as a professional massage therapist. Like Joonas, Elisa says that she has ‘always’ had a sensitivity towards the uncanny. For example, she makes a reference to a ‘spiritual friend’ whom she used to play with as a child. She also says that she has always been sensitive to communications with the deceased. She writes that at the age of eight she could sense that her grandfather had passed away. When her mother received the sad news on the phone, Elisa told her not to answer the call because it will make her cry. Afterwards, Elisa describes her mother as having been ‘astonished’ by the warning. Elisa was not really shocked by the news as she says she felt that ‘grandfather had it good now’. A further instance which has affected Elisa’s process of coming to terms with such abilities concerns an out-of-body experience she had in the early 1980s as a young mother. During this experience, she ‘was watching [my] body from the roofline’, and there was ‘no fear and no evil, just an incomprehensible freedom'. In this narrative, however, the experience is interrupted by a voice commanding her to return to her body. Elisa does not want to go back, but finally gives in as the voice commands her and says that she has a purpose, that she ‘still has much to do’. Elisa then writes that she felt out of breath afterwards, and that all fear of death has since vanished.

Elisa has come to understand her sensitivity to see or sense things unobservable to others as a special ability; a skill to be used to receive knowledge across the boundaries of this world and the other world. Notably, in her adult life she has come to recognise this skill can be refined, and she has developed it in order to help others. Shortly after her out-of-body experience she started to engage in therapeutic work. In the 1990s she carried out mental support work with entrepreneurs before moving on to start an association which brings people together to

Uncanny experiences as therapeutic events 197 discuss topics ‘from birth to death and afterlife’. As a massage therapist, she has been developing a holistic treatment which also incorporates uncanny elements as Elisa discusses these themes with some of her customers. In Elisa’s story different medical and healing discourses emerge as notable actants; for example, contemporary discourses of holistic health affect the ways in which she taps into the uncanny in order to help others. On the other hand, as will be shown, dominant medical discourses appear as equally powerful actants since Elisa’s healing work is much about fighting the pathologising effects of discourses that treat the uncanny as error states of the mind.

Within the group sessions, the group has explored the future and the past. With the group, Elisa engages in making sense of the self and the world in a similar way as Joonas in his narrative. Elisa, however, also highlights herself as a helper of others as she assists people in training their senses and forming an understanding of a world in which both the uncanny and physical reality play an essential part. For example, she says that a customer’s deceased father once entered the group session situation. With Elisa’s assistance, the deceased was able to get a sign to the customer who recognised it as being from her father. Drawing on her personal experience of communicating with the dead, Elisa explains that ‘the deceased want to tell us about life after death and sometimes, to forgive or be forgiven’.

Elisa’s narrative thus introduces a therapist-actant who comes to act as a coordinator of uncanny encounters, helping people gain control over, manage and make further use of experiences that previously seemed unexplainable and ‘out of place’. Through the sessions led by Elisa, the uncanny comes to affect people’s understandings of themselves and the world in a new way. The uncanny then transforms from something strange and possibly disturbing into a therapeutic actant that provides a ‘peace of mind'. Furthermore, such occasions affect and transform the therapist’s professional path and mode of expertise. For example, when massage therapy customers wish to discuss spiritual matters, her professional act transforms by the adding of a spiritual layer into this treatment.

We might then go on to argue that therapeutic instances are not necessarily about people discovering some already existing truth or ‘inner’ self, an idea considered emblematic of New Age spirituality (Heelas, 1996: 18). Instead, truths about the self are established in collaborations between the therapist, her customers, the uncanny, material settings and other actants assembling in practices or ‘improvising acts’ of spiritual entrepreneurship (Hulkkonen, 2017: 5). Group sessions and treatments can be seen as events in a sense that through these gatherings, actants like customers, the therapist and the uncanny come to affect each other and transform; for example in the aforementioned example of channelling a message from a dead father Elisa's skill as a healer is actualised, as is the continuing existence of a loved one - and perhaps for example forgiveness - for the customer. This is how the therapeutic assemblage, involving the uncanny, ‘hangs together’.

Elisa’s narrative also highlights an effort to transform society on a wider scale, which traces back to experiences of stigmatisation she has endured in her social environment due to her sensitivity. She believes that she was misunderstood byher family, and says she had felt a deeper connection to her childhood spiritual friend than to her actual siblings. In fact, her spiritual friend provided her with mental support during feelings of loneliness that seemingly had to do with her special sensitivity. She eventually had to ask her spiritual friend to keep their distance since her parents had started to worry about her mental health.

Through such experiences of distinctness and loneliness, Elisa has come to recognise uncanny experiences as very alienating and widely misunderstood in a technoscientific society that tends to treat them as pathological. For herself, a series of particular uncanny encounters has led to a lifetime of work trying to normalise these experiences and help other experiences come to terms with their special character. As she herself sees it,

People experience and sense many kinds of incidents. Before, they used to tell me about spiritual matters, fearing being labelled as crazy, and they asked me, like, in secret if they could talk to me about such things. I avoid using the term supernatural because to me, these things are natural things and events that belong in the circle of life. [...] Many people simply sense more finely, but they would not need medication but a down-to-earth approach to spiritual matters. Sure, there are also those who do need help from doctors and medication for their problems. Some people react in a defiant manner when somebody talks about “supernatural” things, spirits, or the deceased. This causes the most sensitive ones to question their own mental health and feel anxious about their uniqueness. My concern about how supernatural things are conceived in society and how alone highly sensitive people are, fearing stigmatisation, keeps me going [in therapeutic work].

The stigmatising character of uncanny experiences then comes to act as Elisa’s primary motivation in carrying on her work with other experiencers (see also Koski, 2016). She emphasises the normality of such experiences; for example, she explicitly problematises the notion of ‘supernatural’, as do many other writers of the archive’s letters. By narrating uncanny experiences as natural and intrinsic to some people, Elisa seeks to challenge and transform dominant pathologising discourses that have been influential in not only the sphere of modern medicine, but also everyday life. Elisa makes a critical remark about how people with uncanny experiences can needlessly be put on medication, but also admits that some people benefit from medical expertise. Thus, she does not try to prove medicine wrong, but rather suggests a widening of perspectives on human mind/body to cover spiritual matters, that is, she proposes the inclusion of uncanny actants in our conceptions of humanity, health and well-being.

Narrating personal experiences to representatives of institutionalised science can be understood as an effort to socially normalise uncanny experiences since these narratives are directed at people who are supposed to have the power to affect the social construction of knowledge and thus change the prevailing social structures that insistently seek to pathologise the individual experiencer. Through a (narrative of) lifelong experience of uncanny encounters, Elisa’s knowledge has become experiential expertise. Elisa writes about how she has learned to talk about the uncanny in a generally understandable way, and she also invites the researchers to participate in one of her sessions. These actions can be understood as practices that seek to change the social perceptions of the uncanny experiences as deviant and/or matters of belief and thus not real. Writing to the researchers can be seen as a ‘therapeutic event' in a sense that it seeks to establish new ‘truths’ about the world, although the outcomes and repercussions of such acts cannot be controlled by the writer and might be unexpected (cf. Latour, 1999).

In summary, the dominant scientific-rational worldview along with accompanying scientific discourses emerge in Elisa’s narrative as actants that affect the perceptions of uncanny experiences and experiencers in society. In this context, active work on others and society by helping others and writing to researchers give shape to therapeutic assemblages which seek to provide people with comfort and peace of mind, as well as act upon dominant discourses and transform scientific and cultural ways of perceiving uncanny encounters.

While the main focus has been on Elisa’s work on others and society, her narrative points to how uncanny encounters may involve active work on one’s social relationships, work that transgresses the boundary between life and death. We now move on to investigate this particular aspect of uncanny experiences. In the next section we will illustrate how the uncanny comes to play a part in maintaining and nurturing continuous bonds.

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