In 1957, Lady Wonder died at the age of 33. She lived the majority of her life as a minor celebrity due to her psychic abilities. She fascinated the public, as well as parapsychological researchers, who oscillated between enthusiasm and skepticism regarding her demonstrations of extrasensory perception (or ESP). Lady Wonder communicated psychic insights using a uniquely designed communication system, as normal communication was not possible. She predicted the winners of three major heavyweight bouts, helped the Massachusetts police find a missing child’s body, and located oil deposits. She was a most talented horse.
In his 1953 novel More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon imagined an evolutionary event through which certain humans developed the capacity to merge minds, creating a shared mental gestalt. This premise might sound outlandish, but a version of it was actually being considered by the early cyberneticians at that time. What these insurgent researchers discovered was a reality far more complex than we had been led to believe. It was by studying communication that they exposed the inadequacy of previously held notions of the self/other split. The split generated a destructive worldview – it also obscured a rich world of unpredictable entanglements. The porous reality described by these researchers was more refined than Sturgeon’s notion of gestalt, yet both inquired into the dark space where I end, and you begin.
Sturgeon’s gestalt entails an unimaginable depth of interpersonal intimacy. Those inside its mesh find that many of the unpleasant aspects of being a single person are eliminated. Feelings of loneliness or being misunderstood, for example, evaporate, as these characters instantaneously experience one another’s thoughts and sensations without a gap. But an open door admits all kinds of trouble along with the occasional breeze, and behind the intimacy of the gestalt lurks danger. In the second part of the novel, one telepath uses the gestalt as a kind of brainwashing/army-training base. He embodies the literary trope of the Overman, someone convinced of his superiority and prepared to use that superiority (in this case, the weaponry always embedded in the gestalt) to destroy those weaker than him. The danger, according to Sturgeon’s novel, is clear: the absolute intimacy of telepathy leaves one vulnerable to new forms of control, invasion, enlistment.
I’d like to place a wall here. One that protects yet also lets the light in, perhaps a huge window and an imposing door.
Late one night, I was visited by a familiar specter while lying in my bed. I know its character, though not its name. It is the small winnowing hope that appears in even the blackest of nights; that destabilizing, irrepressible, illogical, beautiful hope that shatters every surety & skepticism: what if, it said to me with stars in its eyes, you are actually telekinetic? I had never considered the possibility, despite my history of personal overestimations. Of course, discovering this power would have the effect of re-enchanting the world, but even more important was how it would prove without a doubt how special, how utterly extraordinary I am! Innately, without needing to do anything at all. Perhaps discovering my magical gift would unfurl my future like a red carpet, resolving a number of old dilemmas. It could be a psychomagical itinerary, a plan of retroactive action, a map for a journey I was already on. It has to be me, I thought, if anyone around here is going to show psychic powers. I was psyching myself up in the darkness of my bedroom. In the blink of an eye, I had gone from paranormal skepticism toward pompous identification. Was I being tempted by psychic powers unbound by laws of physics?
During a cognitive assessment last fall, the doctor told me that I demonstrated remarkable visual memory. “You mean acoustic memory,” I corrected him. (I frequently find myself repeating melodies or phrases ad infinitum.) “No,” he replied, “Your acoustic memory is normal. Your visual memory is, for lack of a better term, freakishly good.” This curious discovery sounded useful, but for what exactly? I wasn’t sure, but definitely something. Maybe if I could do ESP, I could add it to my list of potentially useful characteristics: remarkable visual memory, telekinetic, can speak in public. Maybe I could look at all these superlatives and make sense of myself through them. In them, seeing my shape.
What I want to get at is the relationship between ESP and everyday communication. In his overview of the concept of communication, John Durham Peters imagines two limits. One is a scene in which the self cannot communicate at all due to its impermeable borders. This he calls solipsism. The antithesis of this lonely place is telepathy, in which the boundary between self & other disappears entirely as everything becomes unified as a single substance, like the monk asking the hot dog vendor to “make [them] one with everything.” There is no noise, translation, interpretation, or friction here. No bodies either, since the body presents the very limits that telepathy must transcend.
Neither scenario is very attractive. The former is the realm of isolation. The latter is a technocrat’s dream, the informatic ideal toward which our world has been hurtling for quite some time. In More Than Human, Sturgeon describes telekinesis as a kind of uncanny fluidity of influence. While some amount of unconscious coordination is part of our everyday lives, beyond or beneath our conscious will, Sturgeon’s visit is a bit darker, and I would argue argue that this dark scenario has come to pass through rapid innovation in communications technology. Consequently, this society of control threatens not only our individuality, but perversely, our sociality.
My fantasy of demonstrating ESP quickly faded. Lying in my bed, feeling the linen sheets on my skin, I returned to my senses, content with my utterly normal aesthesis. This fantasy illustrates one point in my opposition to the concept of ESP, for I reject the idea of a world divided between the sharp & the dull, those who can see & those who can’t. I think there are people who can see no-sight, but this is a matter of training one’s embodied apparatus. If communication is that which dwells not-in-between the impossible two of solipsism & telepathy, there’s nothing to worry about. Solipsism supposes the existence of a self that cannot be transcended, thus repudiating communication, while telepathy imagines information without circuits, the stoned overmining of reality by an acid-fried hippie. Far out! Yet not far enough. We must rejoice in the imperfections of communication, all those elisions, misunderstandings, pregnant pauses, reversed emphases, bodily noises, bodily characteristics that define communication.
What the ESP trial offers is the opportunity to listen-see with one’s whole body. Doing a ganzfeld experiment myself reminded me of meditation. When I sit and think not-thinking, when I set my aim at allowing the enigmatic world to make itself known through me, that’s some quasi-ESP shit. I may not be able to literally psychically transmit information, but a strange kind of communication is occurring, intuitively and non- or perhaps pre-verbally, something moving and working in mysterious ways. What that thing is, if it is a thing, perhaps more like a highly dynamic process, can’t be described. Maybe it’s love. Janie, a character in Sturgeon’s novel, says, “Love’s a different sort of thing, hot enough to make you flow into something, interflow, cool and anneal and be a weld stronger than what you started with.”
I would like to share with you my beloved Derrida, who calls for “a desire without a horizon ... and a promise that no longer expects what it waits for: there where, striving for what is given to come, I finally know how not to have to distinguish any longer between promise and terror.”
Dedicating time and space to art amid the grand guignol of this year, maybe this generation, is an act of love. Art as the altered and alternative listening to the mystery, to subtleties and failures of communication, to sensitivities, elisions, and the sudden appearance of new possibilities out of thin air. Listen. Do you understand?