Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge
- ISBN: 9781942658528
- Published By: Bellevue Literary Press
- Published: March 2019
Jeffrey J. Kripal’s The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is an important, wonderfully rich book. He organizes his discussion in five substantive chapters, bookended by a brief prologue and epilogue. Kripal describes these chapters as essais, a sly homage to Montaigne who developed the essaiform as a “trial” or “test” of his opinions, a form of critical inquiry into the truth of human life and nature by way of the experience of one person. The Flip embraces the normative position that individual human experience, fired in the kilns of culture, history, science, and religion, provides the best—and really the only—avenue for engaging consciousness. Understood in this way, it is no stretch to say that The Flip is an extension and development of William James’s idea of radical empiricism. Kripal argues that an entire range of human experience has been rejected from serious scientific inquiry. He calls these extreme or extraordinary experiences, with near-death experiences, alien abduction, and precognition serving as examples. The adjectives extremeand extraordinary point to the fact that this is a category of outlier experiences. To say simply that they are intense or exceptional does not really speak to their standing: these experiences, rather, are impossible—their sheer existence is frequently denied or dismissed altogether. For this reason, the categories and concepts we use to think critically and speak about these experiences are either lacking, or have fallen into disrepute. The category of paranormal, to use one of Kripal’s examples, was originally developed to describe fantastic but nevertheless natural phenomena that could not be modeled or explained using existing scientific frameworks. Soon enough, however, it became a category populated by spooky entities of all sorts, and similarly spooky events unexplainable according to the natural (read mechanistic) workings of cause and effect. As such, to use Kripal’s metaphor, paranormal experiences violate the rules of the academic table regarding acceptable topics for serious scientific inquiry. Kripal is a radical empiricist insofar as he desires to add some leaves to the academic table and make it broader and more inclusive of human experience. He wishes to re-envision the limits of metaphysical possibility. As he writes in the prologue, “I do not want to exhaust you with words. I want to flip you” (13). The “flip” refers to a radical (there’s that word again) reversal of perspective on extreme experience. There is a double meaning at work—an “inside” and an “outside,” you could say. The “inside” meaning refers to the flip intrinsic to extreme experiences themselves. As recounted in chapter 1, Mark Twain experienced precognition, and this experience was transformative. Twain was flipped, in other words, head over heels. Kripal describes the transformative flip as a reversal “from ‘the outside’ of things to ‘the inside’ of thing, from ‘the object’ to ‘the subject’” (12). Put differently, the inside or transformative flip is epistemological: we possess first-hand knowledge of something (as opposed to third-hand knowledge about something). We know it in our bones, we might say. The Flip addresses a wider audience than those who have personally tasted extreme experiences. For the unflipped or uninitiated, the flip speaks to the effects of intellectual imagination—something we can imagine outside of our personal experience despite our lack of first-hand acquaintance. This “outside” flip takes place by means of the narratives and arguments Kripal marshals in his text. If the inside flip can be described as life-changing, then the outside flip is akin to the mind-opening experience of empathetic understanding. If the majority of Kripal’s readers are innocent of extreme experiences personally, they are nevertheless able to imagine these experiences (think of the cliché of walking in someone else’s shoes) and furthermore conceive of nature or reality in new, expansive ways—what Kripal describes as “a new real” (11). For those who have experienced the inside flip, Kripal’s discussion provides warm assurance that they are not “mutants” (think the X-Men), defective, or insane. For those unacquainted with extreme experiences, the outside flip opens the imagination to ponder the potential of human beings and nature/reality beyond the limits of what is considered possible. The Flip, in other words, is a work of therapeutic humanism. Briefly, here are the lineaments of Kripal’s discussion. In chapter 1 he argues for the priority of the humanities for understanding consciousness as something other than (in Gilbert Ryle’s tart dismissal) a “ghost in the machine.” He also sketches what Aldous Huxley called the “filter” thesis (or “transmission” or “reduction” thesis) in which the mind is not reducedto the brain (and is therefore understood to be produced by it), but rather is filtered by the brain while existing outside of the skull cavity. That is, the mind is prior to the brain, not subsequent. Chapter 2 concentrates on the flipped experiences of scientists and skeptics such as A.J. Ayer, Hans Berger, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Michael Shermer. Kripal’s intention is to show that the flip is not something experienced solely by sensitive new agers, creative artsy types, or credulous naïfs. Chapter 3 takes up the relationship of mind and matter from a flipped perspective. From that stance, the familiar binaries—inside/outside, subject/object, mind/matter—are collapsed. Consciousness is not simply “inside” the skull cavity; knowledge is not simply objective or “out there”; and mind is “mattered” no less than matter is “minded.” Consideration of the metaphysics of mind mattering and matter minding leads to a fascinating discussion of dual-aspect monism (118–22), among other possibilities. In chapter 4 Kripal looks at the ubiquity of consciousness in its dazzling diversity as found in the various semiotic codes and systems we call cultures and religions (and cognates, such as scientific materialism). He argues that this is why the humanities have more resources to bring to bear on the topic of consciousness than modern science. Finally, chapter 5 considers the ethical and political implications of a flipped world. The flip, ultimately, is not simply localized in the individual, but in society at large. Expressed differently, the flip is an exquisite example of the bumper sticker “Think Globally, Act Locally.” The Flip could be described as a mythical book written jointly by Montaigne and Jorge Luis Borges: a book about testing first-hand experience (the flip) that conjures, in the spirit of magical realism, the flipped effects of that experience in readers. While Kripal modestly claims The Flip can be read in a single setting, I do not recommend doing so. Read this book slowly, no more than one chapter at a sitting. Think about the arguments Kripal makes, the evidence he marshals, the light touch and melody of his prose, and his prodigious reading. (Like me, you might find yourself making lists of books to read.) Imagine the experiences conveyed in the narratives. Reading this book is an embodied experience; it is yoga for the mind. The Flip is an important book that deserves a broad readership both inside and outside the academy. Stephen Dawson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lynchburg. Stephen DawsonDate Of Review:February 25, 2019
A “flip,” writes Jeffrey J. Kripal, is “a reversal of perspective,” “a new real,” often born of an extreme, life-changing experience. The Flip is Kripal’s ambitious, visionary program for unifying the sciences and the humanities to expand our minds, open our hearts, and negotiate a peaceful resolution to the culture wars. Combining accounts of rationalists’ spiritual awakenings and consciousness explorations by philosophers, neuroscientists, and mystics within a framework of the history of science and religion, Kripal compellingly signals a path to mending our fractured world. In early June I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Dr. Kripal by telephone about his book. — Stephen Dawson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lynchburg.
SD: Are you in your office today, or do you work at home during the summer?
JK: I’m at home. I do go in during the summer but not as much. I get a lot done in my home study. I don’t even try to write or think much in my office, because there I’m busy with administrative tasks, teaching, and meeting with students. Anything creative I do is in the early morning here at the house when I’m fresh and not distracted.
SD: We’ll actually come back to this topic later because I wanted to ask about your writing process, and in particular the way you’ve been so prolific—it’s probably a question born out of envy!
JK: [laughs] That’s a common question, I get that one a lot. I struggle to answer it, but I’ll try. I think it’s an important question. But we can talk about that later.
SD: Okay. Although you have referred to the “flip” in some of your previous work, first-time readers might wonder what exactly the flip is. Early in the book you describe it as an “extreme life-changing experience,” a “reversal of perspective,” a “moment of realization beyond all linear thought, beyond all language, beyond all belief.” You acknowledge in the prologue that most readers will have never experienced the flip themselves. What could you say to first-time readers in particular to help them grasp what you mean by the flip?
JK: The book tries to articulate what the flip is by getting at the experience from different angles—each of the five chapters is one way of approaching the flip. And yes, I don’t expect most readers to have experienced the flip, but I think a good education or even a good book should encourage learners or readers to be able to imagine having such an experience. The book attempts to help readers imagine the experience, even if the experience itself is something they’ve never had. Now, I can’t say that I have had such extreme experiences myself, but I think I’ve flipped intellectually over the years. I don’t see the flip simply as a dramatic personal experience, then. I also see it as an ever-present possibility of a profound education and a deep intellectual life.
Encouraging readers to imagine the experience is important because I think most intellectuals and secular readers assume some kind of materialism. They assume that matter is what’s ultimately real and hard and objective. Anything subjective is just that—“subjective” in the negative sense, fluffy, not real, ephemeral. When someone experiences the flip, one realizes that mind or consciousness is fundamentally real. It’s not merely subjective, fluffy, or tangential. What’s now uncertain is the material world. What’s absolutely certain is consciousness. Ironically, however, once someone makes the flip, all the science and technology continues to work just fine. One realizes, with something of a shock, that materialism was always simply an interpretation of the science. It made sense, but it was not finally necessary. But it’s the reigning metaphysics of the university today. No question about that.
In the book, I focus on scientists and engineers, STEM professionals, as we say today. I’m trying to show how these fields are, in fact, gradually flipping. I’m also trying to make an argument about the politics of knowledge. I think the humanities are dismissed today because we, as a society and an academy, have implicitly or explicitly decided that what the humanities study is essentially nothing—those unreal subjective states. We assume on some level that all the things that we study are merely functions of material processes in the physical brain. The humanities study mental ephemera, while the sciences study objective reality. If that’s your metaphysics, then you’re going to value the sciences and dismiss the humanities. I don’t see a way around that. Hence we now have this general drift in higher education toward the “hard” sciences and away from the “soft” humanities: the metaphors give away the value system, and the metaphysical assumptions. I’m trying to question those assumptions, partly by challenging the metaphors that swaddle and protect them from analysis.
SD: Let me follow up on the unreal subjectivity of the humanities. You’ve noted in a number of places that flipped experiences are often dismissed as anecdotal and therefore unreliable. Skeptics often ground their dismissal in the claim that these experiences typically cannot be demonstrated in laboratory settings—they are impervious to objective third-person models of inquiry. But what about critical first-person forms of inquiry?
JK: Calling something anecdotal or dismissing experiences because they cannot be reduplicated in a laboratory is primarily a polemical move. It is a rhetorical strategy. Of course, flipped experiences are anecdotal in the sense that they often happen once in an individual life. I completely reject the assumption, however, that anecdotal equals unreal or unimportant—I completely reject that. The exact opposite is more often the case. These experiences are often the most important experience of the person’s life. If we’re trying to understand what a human being is or what consciousness is, much less what religion is, then, we have to put those experiences at the very center of our inquiry. And so the fact that they can’t be forced into the scientific method for me is perfectly true, but also perfectly irrelevant. So what? That means little more than that these experiences are not amenable to the scientific method—that is, that the sciences simply cannot see or understand them in the ways that a humanistic first-person inquiry can.
If an intellectual or a scientist experiences a form of consciousness that is prior to any cognitive or emotional state, and such a state appears to be transcendent to ordinary neurological functioning in some way, how is that person supposed to deny that? I mean, it’s simply part of the world for that person. It happened. It’s real.
SD: In The Super Natural, you used the metaphor of controlling the table.
JK: Right. The success of science depends entirely on what it refuses to look at—the only reason science gets to explain everything is because it gets to say what everything is. If you or I want to put things on the table that science cannot study, those things are dismissed as not real or merely anecdotal, and so they’re taken off the table. Science can explain everything because science controls what’s on the table. Of course, the scientific method is the best way to understand everything on the table because the scientific method determines what goes on the table and what doesn’t. I like to put it this way: our conclusions are a function of our exclusions. We draw conclusions about what’s possible because of all of the things we’ve already decided are impossible. But, in fact, those impossible things happen all the time. Yet we are constantly told (because it is in fact not at all clear) that these states are only anecdotal, an illusion, a hallucination, or just a coincidence. Those are simply rhetorical devices designed to control what’s on the table. That’s all they are. Once we put them back on the table, of course, we will need other methods, other ways of knowing. This is what I call the future of knowledge.
SD: Rhetorical strategies masquerading as critical analysis.
JK: That’s right. They’re repeated ad nauseam until we just assume they’re true. They’re just rules of the game that we agreed to follow for reasons, frankly, that escape me. The result is an incredibly myopic and frankly depressing view of who we are and of what we’re capable.
SD: You have a “cosmic humanist” view of human potential. How does cosmic humanism function as a “third way” beyond literal religious belief and mechanical scientific rationalism?
JK: To begin with, cosmic humanism locates human beings in the whole cosmos, not simply in the miniscule slice of space-time we call “history.” It’s not a contained view of human beings. It’s open to all kinds of cosmological views of what the universe is and what human beings might be as highly evolved expressions of that same universe. Cosmic humanism explodes the recent, linear, historicist views of what human beings are by locating the human condition in a vastly greater context—a literally cosmic one.
We often talk about secularism or the science and religion conversations as if there were just two options: we can believe in some past religious worldview that’s totally implausible, or we have to be secular scientific materialists and sign our names to the idea that there is no meaning in the universe and no such thing as consciousness. I find both of those options completely unbelievable. I also find them either absurd or depressing, depending on which one you take.
Cosmic humanism, in contrast, takes what I would call an essentially religious perspective on the human condition (it does not look away from constantly reported experiences of transcendence, for example) but relies on the developing sciences, not on past religious tradition, for new metaphors, myths, and ways of thinking about these extreme events. In other words, it gives us a new way of thinking about the world and about ourselves without us having to subscribe either to past unbelievable beliefs or to the materialist framework that scientists happen to inhabit at the moment (at least in their day jobs). We can toggle back and forth between these transcendent and imminent pictures without subscribing to any particular religious worldview or any present interpretation of the sciences.
SD: There’s a lot of intellectual flexibility …
JK: More than that—cosmic humanism is often wildly optimistic, positive, even ecstatic. It’s forward looking, not backward looking, which I continue to think the religious impulse essentially is insofar as it’s focused on believing in some past revelation that occurred a long time ago. Actually, Steve, cosmic humanism is another kind of temporal flip, because it flips us from a traditional orientation that looks to the past for the full truth to one that looks toward the future for a fuller truth, which, of course, never quite arrives. The horizon is always approaching, and always receding.
SD: You mentioned present interpretation of the sciences a moment ago. One aspect of that present interpretation you call “promissory materialism”—the claim that even though scientific materialism is not able to explain everything now, it will eventually.
JK: Philosophers of science often describe promissory materialism as a good example of “presentism,” which is the position that the present state of science is the final truth of all existence. If you know anything about the history of science, you know that this is an extremely dubious position. In fact, as contemporary science develops, we realize we know less and less. Materialists used to make fun of the God-of-the-gaps argument because the gaps appeared to be getting smaller and smaller. But then comes dark matter and dark energy, and suddenly it turns out that all of our physics, all of our science, is really only about five percent of the known universe. The gap just got really, really big! That makes me giggle. The fact of the matter is that the sciences and the scientists are getting weirder and weirder—they’re not coming up with more and more rational or sense-based views of the universe. They’re coming up with more and more fantastic, literally non-sensical, and in many ways unimaginable views of the universe. I find promissory materialism suspicious, then, not because I buy into some certain or clean religious worldview, but because I’m so in awe of the sciences and how they’re making everything more and more strange. Weirdness is a real marker of truth for me. If it ain’t weird, it probably isn’t true. And by “weird,” I mean “not thinkable, not imaginable, not-sensible”
SD: Let’s talk about the metaphysical question of how mind is mattered or matter is minded, to pick up your language from the prologue. What is dual-aspect monism and why do you find it compelling?
JK: Dual-aspect monism is essentially the position that reality is neither mental nor material. Deep down, it’s both. When, however, it manifests “up here” on the level of human experience with a brain, a body, a socialized ego, and all of the things we are, this one world splits into two dimensions. Now there’s a mental world that we seem to inhabit as an ego or a psyche, and there’s a material world of objects and all of the things around us. But, in fact, or in dual aspect monism, these two dimensions are really the same world. They’ve just been split off of this deeper structure or level of reality. We call it dual aspect monism because it’s epistemologically dual and ontologically monistic.
I find dual aspect monism to be a really persuasive explanation or model because I spend so much of my time looking carefully at people’s paranormal experiences, these weird events in which the physical world is mirroring the subjective state of the person in extraordinary ways, but not in any mechanistic or causal way. One traditional religious response is the assumption that the mental state of the person is somehow causing the physical event in the material environment: this is essentially what we mean by “magic.” The dual aspect response to such magical phenomena is that the mental state and the physical event have “split off” the same one world. The mental state is not causing the physical state on this epistemological plane of human experience, but they’re ontically connected. So they reflect one another. They “correspond” because they are split-off dimensions of the same single reality. Paranormal experiences, it seems to me, are textbook examples of this model. It’s not that the mind of the person is causing the material effects in the environment, but the material effects and the mental states are arising from some shared source of being. I don’t know any other way to explain those events more convincingly than some kind of dual aspect monism. Of course, you can “explain” them by denying that they happen, but that, for me, is a fake explanation. It’s an intellectual cop-out.
SD: Essentially you’re taking on the classic philosophical problem of mind and body.
JK: You know, Steve, this is where I’m actually very close to many materialists who want to say that mind is just brain. Where I differ from them is when they turn around and say, brain is just dead matter with conscious froth on it. No, we don’t know that. They’re monists, but of a physicalist sort. I, too, am a monist, but not of a physicalist sort. Physicalism is simply their metaphysical commitment. It is not at all obvious. It is actually anything but. If we’re really honest with ourselves, the only obvious thing about our existence is consciousness. We are aware of awareness. Everything is an experience. The status of matter is not obvious to us. The only access we have to it is through our own experiences, which is to say: through our own forms of consciousness.
SD: In The Flip, it seems to me, you take seriously William James’ idea of radical empiricism. You’re extending the boundaries of the empirical.
JK: That’s exactly right. The Flip is very much in a Jamesian mode. I would say that what’s changed since James is the science. The science has gotten weirder and weirder. I don’t claim to know or understand the mathematics of quantum mechanics, but I’ve spent a lot of time with quantum physicists who are really struggling with the implications of quantum mechanics. They don’t know what it all means—the answers are profoundly unsettled, and unsettling. But the arrows seem to be pointing toward some kind of world that is fantastic, not more and more clear or clean cut. Again, this is why weirdness is a key epistemological marker of truth for me.
About a year and a half ago, I cosponsored a week-long symposium with a quantum physicist from Switzerland named Harald Atmanspacher. Harald and I brought a group of physicists, scholars of religion, and philosophers of science together. As one of the lay people in the group, I naïvely thought that physics was about understanding the nature of matter. But the physicists there quickly disabused me of that notion. [laughs] They told me repeatedly that we have no idea what matter is. Physics has nothing to do with the nature of matter. It has everything to do with the behavior or the structure of matter. We can predict with great precision how matter will behave, and we can go on and on about its structure, about this or that particle and where it might be. But physics tells us nothing about what it is. The upshot is the realization that, from the beginning, from Galileo on, modern science advanced by taking the ontological question off the table. They simply refuse to deal with it. And so science to this day focuses only on practical questions of how matter behaves and how we can manipulate it and turn it into cool stuff like refrigerators and iPhones. They don’t have the foggiest idea what it is.
SD: That’s surprising to me.
JK: I found it surprising, too, and liberating, and creative. If we’re going to talk about the relationship between mind and matter, and we have no idea what mind is, and we have no idea what matter is—well, the doors are open to a lot of possibilities.
SD: Matter is often assumed to be dead. And so life becomes occult because it seems to originate out of an animate something that is fundamentally dead.
JK: That’s the hard problem of consciousness, as David Chalmers puts it. Someone like Galen Strawson would say that, in fact, the only thing we’re certain about is consciousness. The real hard problem is what matter is—what exactly is it?
This is actually very familiar to the historian of religions. Many of the religious worldviews of the history of religions hold that everything is alive and nothing is dead. The irony of secular modernity is that we’ve completely flipped this around—now everything is dead, and nothing is really alive. I first heard this insight from Bron Taylor, one of our finest scholars of religion and nature. Bron pointed out in Dark Green Religion that the more “advanced” and “civilized” this modern rationalism assumes a culture to be, the more things this “advanced” culture considers to be dead. And the more “primitive” the same modern rationalism considers a culture, the more things this primitive culture considers to be alive. Bron is doing this in the context of uncovering the deep roots of our ecological crisis. One consequence of this cultural affinity is that we treat the natural world as if it were just a set of dead resources that we can torture and use however we wish, because, hey, it’s all really dead. It’s just mindless stuff.
SD: It’s like a terminal disenchantment of the world.
SD: Let’s move from the sciences to the humanities. In The Flip you refer to the humanities as “the study of consciousness coded in culture.”
JK: I think when most people think of the humanities, they end up listing a series of academic departments—the history department, the philosophy department, English, religious studies, art history, and so on. So the humanities are what people in those departments are doing. My definition is an attempt to describe what all of the humanistic disciplines are actually doing: studying forms of consciousness that have been coded in different cultural artifacts, such as a painting or a text or a piece of music—anything produced by human beings. The humanities, then, become the study of human beings—it’s structurally circular, reflexive. But we can’t study human beings directly. For example, even in this conversation, Steve, I can’t really know you as you know yourself. I can only hear your voice and respond to it as a form of consciousness that’s coded in a telephone signal. I’m studying you and you’re studying me as we’re having this conversation. We’re studying these coded forms of our own subjectivities, our own form of consciousness, but we’re studying these indirectly. That’s what I think the humanities in fact are.
One argument I make in the book is that the reason the humanities have been sidelined in the academy is because we’ve adopted the position that consciousness isn’t really real. We in the humanities are as guilty of this as anyone. I mean, for the last thirty or forty years we’ve been involved in a project of deconstruction and the death of the subject, and so any kind of argument about the sui generis nature of consciousness as something fundamental, as something cosmic, is simply ridiculed and rejected in principle. We’ve built our own coffin, and now we’re in it.
The argument I’m making is this: if we come to see consciousness as being more and more fundamental to the nature of reality—if consciousness turns out to be cosmic, in other words—then suddenly the humanities are not just studying tangential fluff or illusions produced by dying brains. Suddenly, humanists are studying the ultimate nature of reality insofar as that reality is indirectly coded in cultural forms. As I argue in The Flip, this is even more the case with the study of comparative mystical literature, which is about extraordinary forms of consciousness that claim to know reality as it really is, from the inside. If we can come to see something of this, any of this, as a culture and an academic public, the value of the humanities would skyrocket.
SD: Right now we concede the rules of the table to the sciences and then make arguments about how helpful we can be to scientific inquiry.
JK: Right. As my colleague here at Rice, Timothy Morton, puts it in one of his delightful quips, the humanities have become little more than candy sprinkles on the cake of science. We’re just sweet little nothings on the real substance, which is science.
SD: [laughs] This next question takes a little unwinding. You’ve written previously—in Secret Body, for instance, that there is no simple or necessary connection between spiritual enlightenment and moral goodness. In place of the charismatic flipped individual—who might be a truly monstrous moral person—you argue in the final chapter of The Flip that “engagement with the humanities in systematically careful and rational ways … remains the best way to translate the flip into sustainable social, political, moral, and economic forms.” Here’s the question—actually, there are two questions. First, how exactly did the humanities become imbued with this flipped mojo, so to speak? And, second, what are your suggestions for putting the flipped humanities into social action?
JK: I’ll start with the first question: where did the mojo come from? [laughs] My own view is that the people we read and most revere in the humanities, people like Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, and Derrida, were often closeted mystics who had themselves been flipped. Just go read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or Derrida’s essay on telepathy. And so when we read and teach these texts, we’re reading and teaching texts that have this mojo embedded in them—that’s where I think the mojo comes from. Remember also: the humanities were born in the monasteries of medieval Europe and then in the Italian renaissance by people who were essentially magicians and mystics as well as intellectuals. The origins of the humanities from the very get go are essentially magical and mystical. We forget that.
These origins are also elite and privileged ones. We assume that the humanities should be available and accessible to everyone, but in fact, historically, they never have been (and maybe cannot be). They’ve always been pursued by monks, elite intellectuals, and people who either don’t have to worry about their next meals or keeping roofs over their heads. Ethically, I think that’s something we need to struggle with. This intellectual elitism is not a problem in physics or chemistry. So why is it in philosophy or history?
As for your second question, I write a good deal in the book about what I call the prophetic function of the humanities. By such an expression, I mean to point to our emphasis on gender, class, race, and sexuality, all of which are deeply embedded in nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectual movements like Marxism and psychoanalysis but really emerged into their present forms in the countercultures of the 1960s and 70s. These essentially moral projects insisted on upholding the integrity of groups of people who had been marginalized in some way. So, yes, I think there is an inherent moral or prophetic function that’s woven deeply into the humanities. And we need this prophetic dimension desperately with these flips, because I don’t believe for a second that a flip always results in moral behavior. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.
What the public hears in the humanities, I suspect, is a profound insistence that all human beings share something identical, some kind of human nature. This is why, of course, we can use these methods (history, anthropology, philosophy, textual criticism) to look at human beings in any time period and any culture for which we have sufficient material. I understand that some might want to deny that. They might want to emphasize only difference and eclipse or even condemn all forms of sameness, but this is precisely why we are failing and have no voice in the public square, I would argue. The public square needs both, not one or the other. As does any coherent notion of justice. Justice is the desire to be treated the same in one’s real and important differences. This is why I speak and write of the prophetic function of the humanities, of justice. Because all of our disciplines assume some kind of fundamental sameness and real differences. Otherwise, I have no idea why we would think that we can or should understand someone else, be it someone in the second century, in another culture today, or the neighbor next door.
SD: One quality of your work I find appealing is the empathy and compassion you have for the individuals you write about. You never seem to lose sight of the fact that these are traumatized, suffering individuals, not merely case studies of various weird or extreme experiences. In what ways have your biographical experiences (some of which were recounted in Secret Body) informed your compassionate inquiry?
JK: That’s a great question. As you know, my first choice of vocation was that I wanted to be a monk. Spiritual direction was very much a part of that vocational track. Spiritual direction is essentially about the inner life of the person and trying to nurture that inner life in a way that respects its complexity and its suffering. I also began my education deeply anorexic in a religious community that was for all practical purposes a sublimating gay community. And so there were any number of fantastic cognitive and moral dissonances between what my own tradition was saying publicly and what it was actually like inside, as it were. I deeply admired the monks and the seminarians whom I lived with—I still do, to this day. I felt great solidarity with the way they were trying to manage all of that dissonance.
I also think psychoanalysis is really important here as well. I was strongly formed by and frankly saved by psychoanalysis. Rule number one in psychoanalysis is that people are complicated. I mean, really complicated! [laughs] They are more complicated than they themselves can ever imagine—that base insight, which has repeatedly been massively confirmed in my interactions with people, has never left me.
SD: Now I want to circle back to the topic of writing that we started with. At the end of Secret Body you attribute much of your prodigious productivity to your wife, Julie, and you make reference to the energy work that she practices. What do you think is the source or the explanation for all of these books you’ve written?
JK: I’ll give you the joking answer, and then I’ll try to give you a more serious answer.
Like I said earlier, I get asked this a lot, and so the first thing I always say—I suppose as a way to bounce back the question, or not answer it—is that the productivity is some combination of neurosis and caffeine, mixed in the right amounts. That’s the joking answer, though there’s some truth to it. I would not underestimate caffeine, or neurosis.
But honestly, Steve, on the deepest level—I don’t know how this will sound—I’ve written so much (probably too much) about that Night in Calcutta back in 1989 and what I call “the download.” In my most honest moments, I really attribute my productivity to that Night and its noetic or gnostic transmission. I really believe—there’s not many things I believe, Steve—but I believe that something was given to me that Night, maybe all the books at once (okay, that’s what I really believe–they were all there, all at once, and so, of course, I did not understand any of it, as I had no context, nothing other than a massive electrocuting arc bending back from my own future). Yes, I know how crazy that sounds. But you asked me how I did it, and that’s how I think I did it.
On a (much) more practical level, I was also very fortunate to have a wonderful editor at a single fine press who after my first book kept asking me what I wanted to do next. After Kali’s Child, which was my first book, I never had to worry about a press or an editor. David Brent kept urging me on to the next book. So there was Roads (a deeply personal book that almost no one has read). Then The Serpent’s Gift. Then Authors of the Impossible. And we just kept doing that for seven books over about a quarter of a century, while I worked on edited volumes, co-authored books, and the Macmillan Handbook Series on the side. Now that David is retired, Alan Thomas is my editor. Alan and I are working on the next three major books, a trilogy. It’s more than some occult download in Calcutta, then. It’s also about presses, editors, artists, publicists, and, of course, readers and teachers who assign the books. I must also mention Esalen and the spiritual-moral support of Michael Murphy, Esalen’s co-founder, in this context. I have been attending or hosting symposia with Mike since 1998 now. The influence of Mike and these symposia on my thought and books is simply inestimable.
The reason that I wrote Secret Body is because I wanted to wrap a bow around all of this and say, “Okay, here’s the body of work.” There is a certain virtue in keeping a corpus relatively brief (or is that just a rationalization to explain one’s mid-life exhaustion?). In any case, I feel that at this stage of life that what I most want to do is help train and mentor younger intellectuals. I suppose I care most now about the field as a whole, which is to say about its people, not how many books or essays are on my resume.
You know, The Flip is about the humanities as a whole, not just the study of religion. I recently accepted an associate dean position here at Rice. The reason I did so is that I want to walk the talk. I don’t just want to talk and write about this crisis and offer this or that solution on the page. I want to see if the solutions actually work. I want to try and understand the situation from the ground up. I am sure it will not all work out, that it will be messy. But so is everything else I have written or thought about.
SD: Looking back at your work over the past twelve years, what do you think is the most common misunderstanding of what you are trying to do?
JK: I think misunderstandings of my thought have changed and, quite frankly, flipped. In my early career when I was studying mystical forms of eroticism, male sexuality, and male sexual orientation, people misread my work as being completely reductive, as somehow denying the religious or transcendent aspects of mystical experience. Now, with my emphasis on the paranormal and the strange, I think people too often assume or fear that I’m somehow denying the immanent, the political, and the ethical. Both of those readings are simply wrong. If you look at my work as a whole, it insists on all of that—I don’t want to leave anything out. Probably the number one misunderstanding throughout my career, then, has been people trying to pigeon-hole me as doing this or that when I was always doing this and that. If I had to do this and that in a serial fashion spread out over many books and many years, so what? That does not change the paradoxical punch, or what I prefer to call the “ouroboric” structure of the total body of work.
I’m a big tent kind of guy when it comes to the study of religion. I don’t think there’s one way to study religion. I want to be in a big tent. I don’t want to be in a little one with only a few people, nor do I want to be in a little tent with only people who think like I do. I don’t think of what I do as simply my project. I want these ideas to be out there so we can start talking about them, so other people can jump in. That’s the whole point of writing and talking, as I see it: to create a safer space and wider conversation for thinking and talking about what’s truly valuable and important. I honestly don’t care about being right about this or that. I know I have made mistakes. I will make more. I don’t care. I just want to keep the conversation moving. I want to talk into the Night.