Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence University of Kent May 6th-7th 2011 by Jack Hunter
The University of Kent has hosted two groundbreaking conferences in the space of just over a month - the first was an epic exploration of psychedelic consciousness, and the second an examination of the daimonic in all of it's varied guises. There seems to be a newly burgeoning interdisciplinary renaissance in the desire to understand consciousness and these two conferences represent significant stepping stones in that endeavour. The second of the two conferences, entitled Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, was truly interdisciplinary in nature featuring talks from numerous academic departments including art, literature, divination, cultural studies, philosophy, theology and religious studies, spirituality, anthropology, classics, history, psychology, film studies and sociology - a truly inspirational feat of organisational ability. As there were so many talks going on simultaneously in three separate rooms it was only possible to attend a select number, consequently this overview will only focus on those that I attended (I look forward to catching up on the ones I missed when the numerous recordings are published online).
The first panel of the day kicked off with Geoffrey Cornelius' talk "One Mumbo Short of a Jumbo: Limits of Rational Discourse in the Realm of the Daimon". In the talk Cornelius gave a valuable introduction to the increasingly rational scientific position on issues of metaphysics that has developed in the West since the Enlightenment, paying particular attention to the work of Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. In his essay "Dreams of a Spirit Seer" (1766) Kant, following Swedenborg's famous clairvoyant vision of a fire in Stockholm, conducted a philosophical exploration of Swedenborg's proto-spiritualist philosophy. He concluded that Swedenborg's writings referred to a different realm of being, one that is not amenable to rational discourse - forever in an area that does not consist of positive knowledge, so while Kant did not necessarily dismiss Swedenborg's philosophy he did conclude that it was irrational and so, in his own terms, "cancelled" any further discussion of it. Cornelius concluded his talk with the notion that today belief is not enough, we need to submit experience to discrimination of thought. He suggested that we take a "second naive" position when considering the realm of the daimon - a position that is experiential but which takes heed of the progress that has been made by the rational enlightenment. The second presentation in this first panel was given by two developmental psychologists from Bar-Ilan University, Israel - Hannyah & Rivka Glaubman - entitled "Imagination as a Primary Mental Function". It was argued here that the imaginative capacity of human beings has played a central role in our evolutionary development, a position which is in opposition to the classical view of imagination as secondary to epistemic processes which allow us to engage with our environment. The Glaubman's suggested that our ability to imagine has been fundamental to our survival in allowing us to solve problems in difficult situations. Drawing on research in child development they suggested that there is no reason to assume that when a child is born they have a fully formed idea of the "real world", rather they use their imaginations to build up a picture of the world which is later tested using their epistemic faculties. They argued that the evidence from developmental psychology indicates that a fictional world-view may come first, or at least at the same time as the epistemic world-view.
Following the morning panel was Ronald Hutton's keynote lecture simply entitled "Encounters With Faeries" in which he gave a colourful and enlivening account of the similarities and differences between traditional folkloric accounts of the faerie folk and the much more homogenised Victorian fairy tale. Hutton highlighted the danger and tension between the world of the humans and the faeries in the traditional folklore motifs which was entirely lost in the Victorian fairy story. He also examined potential functional explanations for the traditional folklore, suggesting the possibility that such stories provided useful justifications for, for instance, mild forms of schizophrenia (e.g. he's away with the fairies), to stop people being stupid (e.g. don't go walking on the moors late at night), and to explain luck/misfortune without blame (e.g. it's the doing of the fairies). Hutton also gave a sort of anthropology of the faerie world, suggesting that fairy lore in Britain is zoned - in the South fairies are small and friendly, in the North, Southern Scotland and Wales fairies need to be constantly reckoned with and in the the Scottish Highlands and Ireland fairies are generally much larger, more dangerous and cause more problems. The faeries of traditional lore often have jet black skin (unlike any human skin), they are usually about 5 feet in height, have a preference for green and white clothes, enjoy circle dancing, live underground, come out only in the summer and autumn and have a single nameless Queen. To conclude his talk Ronald told us the story of his own tantalising encounter with the Leanan Shidhe while walking as a young man in Ireland.
After lunch the next panel opened with Terrence Palmer's examination of the work and theories of founding psychical researcher F.W.H. Myers in his talk "The Scientific Approach of F.W.H. Myers to the Study of Mystical Experiences, and Its Value to Psychology". The talk was a synthesis of some of Palmer's doctoral research at the University of Bangor. Palmer drew attention to the huge influence of Myers' psychological theories on the works of other, more well known, pioneers in the field of psychology. Myers' model of the human mind, consisting of the supraliminal (normal everyday consciousness) and the subliminal mind (beyond the threshold of normal everyday consciousness) was hugely influential in the development of, for example, Piere Janet's theories of dissociation, William James' notion of 'consciousness beyond the field', and Jung's collective unconscious. Unfortunately for Myers, his theory was swiftly superseded by Freud's psychodynamic model and Watson's behaviourism. Palmer also highlighted Myers' realisation that the realms of psychological disorders, inspiration and the paranormal were linked in a unified conceptual framework revolving around altered states of consciousness. To Myers these were not supernatural, but rather facts of nature. Terence Palmer's talk was followed by a presentation from Maggie Hyde entitled "Uncanny Intelligence and One World Cosmology in Depth Psychology". In this presentation Hyde traced the vestiges of the pre-enlightenment notion of the Unus Mundus, or One world, in post-enlightenment divination practices and connected these with the practices of depth psychology and psychoanalysis. Hyde argued that the methods of psychoanalytic dream interpretation are similar in many ways to the traditional methods of divination, only that in contemporary psychiatry the paranormal component is generally rationalised away through the use of terms such as "transference" and "counter transference". It was at the end of Maggie's presentation that I made my way over the Lecture Room 3 to see Helena Bassil-Morozow's presentation on "Modern Myth and Modern Demons: Tim Burton's Batman Films". Bassil-Mozorow's talk took a neo-Jungian approach to the interpretation of Tim Burton's two Batman films (Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)). In the talk Bassil-Mozorow examined the expression of Tim Burton's distrust of large collective groups and his preoccupation with fragmented psyches (as expressed through many of his most memorable characters) through the lens of Jungian theories.
The first talk of the second day was given by myself and was entitled "Numinous Conversations: Psychical and Anthropological Interpretations of Spirit Communicators" in which I explored the parallel development of parapsychological and anthropological theories of spirit possession. This was followed by David Luke's talk "So Long As You've Got Your Elf: Death, DMT and Discarnate Entities" which took the audience on a high-speed tour through the strange and interconnected realms of faerie traditions, parapsychology, neurochemistry and the psychedelic experience. David Luke considers himself and ontologist, and through examining reports of strange entity encounters while under the influence of the highly psychoactive compound DMT considers that we have at our fingertips a highly repeatable method for studying these entities that is amenable to laboratory experimentation. Psychedelic experiences offer researchers unique access to innumerable invisible worlds and their inhabitants. The third talk of this morning panel, entitled "Psychedelics, Spirits and the Sacred Feminine", was given by Cameron Adams, an anthropologist based at the University of Kent. The talk focussed on the often reported feminine presence encountered while consuming psychedelic substances (a brief perusal of the Salvia Divinorum archives at www.erowid.org will give an insight into this). Cameron argued, however, that this particular interpretation of femininity is particularly Euro-centric, and that if we look to other cultures psychedelic experiences are interpreted in completely different ways. In many shamanic societies, for instance, psychedelic experiences open the experiencer to a world of supernatural warfare, of battles with witches and to a spirit world overtly concerned with notions (and experiences) of death and rebirth.
The second keynote lecture was titled "When Spirit Possession is Sexual Encounter: The Case for a Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece", and was concerned with Dr. Marguerite Rigoglioso's painstaking research into the possibility of temples in ancient Greece which revolved solely around the induction of immaculate pregnancies. Drawing on a wide range of ancient sources Rigoglioso argued that there was evidence to suggest the existence of a widespread belief in parthenogenesis (female only conception and birth) in the ancient world. She argued that remnants of this belief can be seen in many of the world's religious and mythological systems including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and certain Native American traditions. This talk was provocative and engaging and resulted in a lengthy and informative question and answer session.
After lunch we reconvened for further panels. First of all I attended Stephanie Spoto's talk "John Dee's Conversations with Spirits and Problems in Elizabethan Practical Occultism", in which she gave a colourful insight into the world of Elizabethan magic focussing primarily on the relationship between Elizabeth I's court astrologer John Dee and the mischievous psychic Edward Kelly. At the end of this talk I hurried over to Lecture Room 3 to catch Alex Rachel's talk "Daimonic Symbiosis: An Inquiry into the Psychic Coevolution of the Human and Subtle Species" in which he synthesised his decade of meticulous research using altered states of consciousness to make contact with non-physical entities. Rachel analysed his experiences with ASCs through the framework of transpersonal psychology, and argued for the possibility that human psychic and cultural evolution has been driven by waves of contact with non-physical entities that long to be a part of our physical world of forms. He suggested that his concept of daimonic symbiosis could be put to use in psychology through the development of new models of the psyche (a poly-centric psyche of aggregated non-physical entities?), in interdisciplinary studies through overcoming academic fragmentation, and in eco-social issues though providing an experiential insight into current sustainability. The final presentation in this session was given by Toby Chown who drew on his work providing drama therapy classes in a medium-secure psychiatric ward. Chown argued in favour of the benefits of using drama therapy and the imagination to assist fragmented psyches to engage in a dialogue with themselves to resolve internal problems through character acting.
Unfortunately, due to my having to catch a train, I was unable to attend the final keynote lecture of the conference, though I am sure that there will be other overviews that will pick up on aspects that I have been unable to outline. All in all the conference was a breath of fresh air - it was wonderful to see so many disciplines represented and to see how they all provide unique insights into the multifaceted daimonic reality. I see this conference as a major stepping stone and look forward to further developments - it is a very exciting time.