Here are two intensely original essays in distinct voices and registers that also repeatedly intersect. Reading Christina Sornito and Allen Shelton together gave me an impression of waves: shifting overlaps of Walter Benjamin and Carl Jung, openings and flashes, Trump and nostalgia. Both Sornito and Shelton use theory shot through with stories, and stories with theory. Both leave me with a jolt of open intellectual possibility. Together, these essays animate questions I wanted to think with in The Resonance of Unseen Things. How do fragments of social memory saturate stories which, at least on the surface, refer not to history but to the occult, the fantastic, the ephemeral real? How do we encounter affect in the recombinations and repetitions of poetics? (Shelton rightly observes that The Resonance of Unseen Things was opened ethnographically in the “stylistic explosion” of Katie Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, which performed, as Shelton puts it, “the sense that affect is a wavelength running through terrains.”)
How do past and present appear in “flashy moments,” as Sornito calls them? Here Sornito dwells in Benjamin’s dialectical image, where you don’t experience the past shedding light on the future, nor the present illuminating the past. Rather, as Sornito beautifully puts it, the dialectical image produces the “synthesis of past and present” in a flash. Benjamin called this flash “dialectics at a standstill . . . not progression but image, suddenly emergent.”1 The dialectical image provides for Sornito a “constellation of new connections.” Constellations keep appearing in Shelton’s essay, too—stars appear as redemption from despair, bright points of pattern in the potential of poetics. Stars flash into a “zigzag pattern” when he sees a UFO. He tells the enchanted story of that sighting. His mysterious UFO flashes synthesize story and theory.
In these essays (and beyond these essays) the secular and the sacred seem dialectical, rather like the past and present in Benjamin’s dialectical image: that is, they contradict and synthesize, their simultaneity “suddenly emergent.” The enchanted and the rational are not clearly distinct practices here but rather a flash of longings and refusals. How does one write about an elusive, restless tangle of social affects without explaining it away? Shelton says it gorgeously: Like Medusa it had to be approached with a mirror, in this case, poetics. I think Shelton and Sornito ask what I always want to think about: What do we make of intensely felt stories that seem to be an elliptical index to an elusive something else? When the object you want to look at seems as undulant as Medusa’s snakes, you don’t go for blunt referentiality, because you want to avoid reification; you want an analysis that won’t turn to stone. Both Shelton and Sornito here keep the Perseus position alive; the point is not to slay the Medusa but to keep looking at things as they are reflected in elliptical angles. Shelton and Sornito pivot off my book to think generously and generatively about all sorts of moving parts in the world beyond it.
“Open Sky” starts with Shelton’s despair at news of the 2016 election. His sky shuts like an iron door. I have a friend whose Japanese-American grandfather was incarcerated in a camp far from his home in California during World War II. After the 2016 election she heard iron clanging and found she could not leave her bed for two weeks. But one day, from inside her mourning, she sent flowers to her friends, to remind us of red and yellow. Did Shelton’s sky close with a bang that day, or was there a silent, relentlessly shrinking hole at the center? Reading his essay, I pictured both simultaneously: shock and resignation. The shock of this election conjures other eras: Walter Benjamin’s meandering through the arcades, where Shelton says “even dreams had a ceiling . . . around and inside these greenhouses fascism was flourishing,” now as then. But Benjamin could walk out of the arcades; Shelton says we have no easy egress.
Where does poetics become sympathetic magic, or grow poised to break into historical awareness? Shelton recognizes the author’s—that is, my own—deepest plunge into poetics as a danger. Abandoning all explanation to mirrors and connections can leave the pattern-seeker teetering on an edge. Shelton summons Jung, priest of patterns, telling us that Lucia Joyce dove all the way in, past the literary frontier that kept her father James safe; she followed his poetics to a place where the referents dimmed, where poetics become madness. And Sornito recognizes how, out there in the madness of the world, previously subtle affects have now become “surging” and “palpable.” Both essays navigate us between the current atmosphere of Trump’s presidency and the emergent and residual elements that materialize here, today, in an iteration of modernity that feeds on both conspiracy and disenchantment; we are still trying to see it through smudged glass, in flashes.
Isolated in iron as the sky closes up . . . this impression returns later in Shelton’s essay, with Max Weber’s iron cage evoking the bleak uncanny of the automaton. I had not thought of Weber when I saw an automaton in Vegas, but now I can’t escape that connection. The end of his own book, he notes, uncannily aligns with mine. The smeared glass at the beginning of his essay seems to me to waver, at the end, in the glass of the airplane window from Resonance, and I felt that, in Shelton’s musings about the airplane window, and his invocation of the “Susan” who becomes a figure in the writing, we get another opening and another repetition. In all this, he says the in Resonance of Unseen Things “the sky is still open.” I love this comment and I read it to mean, in part, that from where we stand now, the 1990s of my book seems saturated in possibility; the gathering public feelings still might have taken any direction. What materialized in 2016 was not an inevitability, but rather an emergent affect still coming into focus. There is nostalgia for what—from here—seemed open then, before the nationalist nostalgia that always thrums through fascist dreams hardened again into a new place.
Sornito compellingly writes about the “inarticulable undertow” in the thickening current atmosphere that pulls her secular students toward a college course on magic. Shelton’s methodology is itself sympathetic magic, deploying resemblances and associations to conjure a writerly power. Shelton thinks deeply about the “trauma of the uncanny.” Sornito notes this sense of the uncanny depends upon an idea of the enlightened modern subject, a Freudian self who takes only rational connections for granted; the traumatized Freudian uncanny is a socially and historically specific interpretation of one register of experience, for “Evans-Pritchard’s Azande narrators would take witchcraft, or connections made by magical thinking, for granted.”
What do our constellations, flashes, synchronicities tell us about the past and the present? This leads to my final musing. In yet another convergence, both essays discuss C. G. Jung, though Shelton does so fleetingly. I have been caught up in Sornito’s cogent, invigorating discussion of Jung, asking myself why Jung, who did indeed write famously about UFOs, is absent in The Resonance of Unseen Things. The people I write about are masters of synchronicity. As Sornito notes, Jung thought of the UFO as a sign of a collective mythology (as I do); Jung’s sense of modernity’s reenchantment could flash alongside Benjamin’s. Sornito’s discussion infused me. In another life, I read Jung for solace. In my twenties I went to a Jungian analyst. Over and over, I dreamed, a young boy climbed an electric power station. We dream in the atmosphere we’re given. The Jungian analyst said: that is the Puer, the child-god, and it was seductive to connect one’s unconscious to an eternal human sign. But reading Sornito, I realized I’d abandoned Jung out of my perhaps too-easy sense that Jungian archetypes are meant to transcend history. If Freud’s uncanny foregrounds trauma’s transformations and hauntings, I thought of Jung’s eternal symbolism as effacing the political. In a haunting magazine interview in 1942, Jung says the “German soul” incarnated a mythic past, and Hitler was a manifestation of “the truly mystical medicine man,” one of the “two types” of leaders in primitive society. In contrast to Benjamin, where past and present meet dialectically, in Jung, past and present are an abiding myth that endures beyond any specific history, the ancient “cult of Wotan” in a feverish Germany. The secular here dreams toward itself something terrifying. “Hitler’s power is not political—it is magic,” Jung (at least allegedly) tells his interviewer. That mythic, fevered sensibility feels uneasily familiar, now. It simultaneously breaks us from a rationalist reduction, and yet can feed nationalist nostalgia and—in Jung’s case—is taken up by white supremacy in search of a mythic past. And yet Sornito has made me reconsider a hasty expulsion of Jung. For Jung, UFOs were in fact not simply eternal archetypes but materialized incarnations of a contemporary, specific cultural and historical trauma in the shadow of the nuclear age.2 My response to Sornito’s essay is to reread Jung’s “Flying Saucers,” even as we all—Sornito, Shelton, and me—still see a dialectical, not an eternal, flash of past and present.
In both Sornito’s and Shelton’s responses, affective terrains extend across time and space, decades and continents. Both essays open a space for reenchantment that seems, to me, not unlike the uncanny talk I explore in my book. The possibilities of enchantment are thoroughly entangled with rationalized worlds here. What does the secular mean when desire for an inexpressible something beyond iron doors passes only through smudged windows, but still flashes? Following Shelton’s and Sornito’s performances, we should enter magic, not dismiss it; and at this moment especially we wrestle with the desire for a collective myth, not try to excise it. These two essays quicken me, and remind me that we still need mirrors to tilt into the undertow.