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Skeptical/Critical Approaches
Record Type: Review   ID: 1142

Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture

Hess, David J.

 This is the first full-length book treatment of a postmodern approach to parapsychology. It is by an accomplished scholar who has been inside parapsychology and outside it. Hess embeds parapsychology within contemporary culture as represented in the U.S., and within it, three primary communities: "New Agers, who accept the paranormal in the context of a broader quest for spiritual knowledge; para-psychologists, who define paranormal phenomena to include a narrow range of phenomena for which they seek a scientific basis; and skeptics, who adamantly oppose all paranormal beliefs and claims. ... Although I make no attempt to answer the ultimate questions of meaning, I will show how the range of positions that have appeared in the debate—from skeptical materialism to otherworldly spirituality—are not the product of purely intellectual or spiritual processes, but instead are part of an ongoing cultural dialogue" (p. ix). Although the book is studded with brilliant insights and observations, perhaps the most important is that all parties in the debate are in effect "forging a shared culture" (p. x), regardless of their position. It is sufficiently beyond mainstream culture to be given its own label, and Hess uses the term paraculture for it. The book is aimed not only at members of the three groups, whom he calls nonexperts (in regard to culture) but "primarily for other scholars situated at the intersection of disciplines known as ‘cultural studies’: anthropology, literary studies, cultural history, the sociology of knowledge, and other related fields" (p. x). Perhaps it is a sign of how far paraculture has come that it can serve as the subject of a volume aimed at cultural studies scholars. In a sense, in situating the volume as he has Hess may be playing a major role in constructing the social reality he writes about. If so, more power to him! Part I consists of two chapters serving as an Introduction: one that describes the three cultures of New Age, parapsychology, and skepticism, and one that describes the historical context, which provides some sense of historical developments and the precursors of the three groups. Part II, The Cultural Construction of Skeptical and Paranormal Discourse, has chapters on Self and Other, Heroes and Sermons, Gender and Hierarchy, and Skepticism and the Paranormal in Hollywood. In these chapters he compares and contrasts the views of members of the three cultures, finding the common ground they share, although they may take opposing positions. The last part, Conclusions and Implications, consists of two chapters, Theoretical Conclusions and Practical Implications: Toward Dialogue. These are very important but an abstract does not provide sufficient space to elaborate. In effect, he deals with the social construction of science, including the human sciences. To their great credit, the latter, however, have become reflexive, i.e., they step back and try to observe their work from the outside, through the eyes of the Other, in an effort to become more conscious of the basis of their position. Hess advocates an advanced form of reflexivity, one "that goes beyond textual experimentation to a critique of the social, cultural, and political assumptions of both the discourse of the Self and that of the Other. In a postmodern and postfoundationalist world, the critique of the Other will be accompanied by a return motion directed towards one’s own discourse, but in a postconstructionist world there are no neutral positions and therefore one must eventually articulate a position lest someone else do it instead" (p. 155). The second chapter constructively asks questions and offers suggestions for changes that are directed at all three groups. This book cannot be summarized—even the footnotes are very important.
Publisher Information:Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993. 244p. Bibl: 213-238; Chap. notes: 189-211; Index: 239-243
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