Close Encounters with Placeness: The Odds

v.2.1 - 30/5/2020

This three part essay is a revised and expanded version of my notes for a lecture and workshop with the same title I gave at last year's Occulture conference in Berlin.

It became centered around Randonauting but you may as well consider that a place-holder for many other kind of mindful ways of engagement with place. It has a meandering shape, covering a lot of thoughts I've had related to Spirit of Place or Placeness throughout the last years.

In the last part we explored our relationship with place in general and the strange un-places in our minds. In this part we will dig into synchronicities, contingency and divination, and in the final one we will look at deeper meanings of place and The Zone.

The Odds

As an introduction to this passage, an iconic scene from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark:

(In this scene Indiana Jones opens the "Well of Souls" from its hermetically sealed eternal slumber and finds what he fears the most: snakes! What are the odds?)

Randonauting promises wonder and weirdness and people discover both right outside their reality tunnels' front doors. Also here it is too easy to psychologize away all the strange encounters and genuine synchronicities that randonauts experience on their journeys.

To refresh some terminology: the term 'synchronicity' is commonly used to categorize strange coincidences of two or more related or similar events happening at the same time. Usually their objective intensity is less important than their subjective and very personal significance to the individual experiencing them. Sometimes synchronicities repeat or accumulate within a short period of time for one person, in other cases they happen to different people in the same social group.

Filmmaker, author, and Weird Studies host and researcher J.F. Martel summed it up very well by writing:

Synchronicities differ from coincidences by the meaning they appear to contain. Often that meaning is inscrutable; once in a while, it seems clear and direct. Either way, synchronicities are marked by a sense that we are being addressed. The sense is sewn into the event. Synchronicities temporarily erase the boundary between world and mind, object and subject, chance and fate. You are free to dismiss the effect as a mere impression, a brief lapse of reason, but doing so won’t banish the synchronicity.1

In randonauting lore 'synchros' can be as simple as encountering repetitive number sequences on clocks, speedometers, or street signs, like 222, 12:12, 4444, and so on. Or they are unusual objects that are seen by different people in different places, like white rabbits, owls, "piss bottles", purple flowers, and so on. In other occasions the things discovered on randonaut trips are less synchronistic coincidences, but almost paranormal low-probability black swan events happening, like UFO or cryptid sightings.

Synchro

In a philosophical essay on Stranger Things JF Martel was on point about Jung's 'synchronicities':

What made his theory controversial was that it made meaning integral to the event instead of regarding it as a caprice of subjective interpretation. In other words, Jung saw the expression of meaning as a property of the natural world rather than a surface effect of human mentation. Synchronicity, for him, was a real psychophysical process, but one that the modern worldview could recognize only at the cost of abandoning certain rationalistic assumptions about how the cosmos functions.2

Considering the probabilistic odds of such occurances it becomes clear that the high strangeness around randonauting cannot explained by mere chance, nor even sufficiently enough by official randonaut theory of finding novelty through randomness. In our spectacle worldview overlaps between thoughts 'in our mind' and random events 'out in the world' must be highly improbable chance events.

Besides the erroneous dualism it also bears the question if we even understand and conceptualize 'chance' adequately.

In the introduction of his translation of French philosopher and matematician Antoin Cournot's Essay on the Foundations of Knowledge Merritt H. Moore writes:

contingency and chance must not be equated with that which is unexpected, or with that which surprises us. What is unexpected or occasions surprise is a function of epistemological, psychological or cultural factors. Natural objects, processes and events, independent of our experience or knowledge of them, involve both order, i.e., intrinsic relatedness, and chance, i.e., intrinsic unrelatedness. Both order and chance have their foundations in the nature of things; neither stems from the conditions of our awareness and understanding however limited or extensive, incidental or necessary these conditions may be. 3

Order and chance are here described as two equal and fundamental principles of nature. Derivative market trader and philosopher Elie Ayache goes even a step further and coins the phrase 'contingency as a medium'. In his breathtaking philosophical analysis of derivative trading and how it relates deeply to our metaphysical understanding of reality, he refutes all predominant statistical and probabilistic epistemologies and recognizes contingency as fundamental matière première.

Reality always exceeds fiction. We encounter the real without previous warning. We are made aware of the event and of the world that this event brings about, and then go looking for a partition of that world into ‘states of affairs' or ‘states of the world'. This conceptualization of the real is only a model that is derived from the real itself. Only after the states of the world are identified do we call them possibilities and retroject them into the past so as to narrate a nice story about how the event might have come about, or about the possibilities that will have led to it. By extrapolation, we project those possibilities into the future and imagine that the future world will be no more than a variation of those identified possibilities.4

The process of deterministic sense-making from which we derive the probabilistic 'possible futures' seems to have peaked in this current era of technocratic materialism. From our observing position outside the mechanical world we predict its possible future states through probability.

The real is an altogether different matter than the possible, without any possible communication or mediation between the two. What lies outside possibility or beyond the range of possibilities – literally, the im-possible, or the event – is real, because the procedure whereby we fabricate the possible out of the real is always incomplete and deficient and falls short of the real. [...] Radical contingency, or the event, shakes the range of possibilities and updates a whole new world, which may be incompatible with the previous one. Historic events are history-changing.5

The phenomena we call synchronicities are the smoking gun that our whole epistemology is barely a house of cards constructed from anthropocentric wishful thinking. In the face of such events our concepts of psychology and physics, of ourselves and the world, and our understanding of fundamental principles of reality seem fragmentary at best.

Synchronicities and black swan events are contingent and rare when judged from a probabilistic point of view. Yet they happen quite often when randonauting. I was often wondering why that is. How is it possible that people visit randomly generated coordinates and have contingent yet meaningful encounters? Does it have to do with the fact that the very source of the coordinates, a quantum random number generator (QRNG) itself is a source of pure contingency? If we follow Cournot and Ayache in their notion that contingency is fundamental and intrinsic to nature and a prima materia it becomes an uncanny but obvious idea that something along those lines might in fact be going on here.

For Ayache, such a thing as a 'random number generator' doesn't exist:

What I am arguing for is precisely the superiority of contingency in terms of changing the context (or the range of possibilities) and the fact that a 'random generator' is always relative to a certain context and its perfectly identifiable states. To repeat, it is not 'random' that I am arguing against; it is 'generator'. There is no generator of contingency as such, because contingency is absolute and not relative; it is always the ultimate mover, even though we may not – almost by definition – frame it into an ultimate context. Hence the deep metaphysical challenge in overturning the ontology and putting such an 'open' category as contingency first.6

In a way Ayache seems to agree with Cournot who argues that contingency is not only an objective, but metaphysical reality:

it is true to say, as has been so often repeated, that chance governs the world, or rather that it has a part, and a large part, in governing it. This is not in conflict with the generally accepted idea of a supreme and providential direction. This is true whether providential direction is presumed to bear only on average and general consequences which are established as a result of the laws of chance, or whether the supreme intelligence arranges details and particular facts in such a way as to co-ordinate them with designs which surpass our science and theories.7

Noise

This absolutistic and almost theological approach to contingency made me realize that randonauting is in fact a system of divination: the attribution of decisive or at least predictive powers to a supra-personal agent in the shape of pure contingency.

Divination

In a critical essay against Quentin Meillasoux nihilistic understanding of absolute contingency as fundamental absence of meaning the philosopher and educator Joshua Ramey postulated the idea of a 'divining cause'. After the four forces 'material cause', 'formal cause', 'moving cause' and 'final cause' that Aristotle defined as fundamental basis of determinism, the divining cause is the fifth:

The divining cause is in some sense the cause of the occasion, equivalent to the contingent or chance element itself. The divining cause is linked, as it were, to the singularity of an event. [...] It demonstrates a reasoning that is by nature occasional, not so much subject to chance as taking chance as its subject.8

Ramey defines the divining cause as being the inherent power of divinatory practice. Not as an attempt to predict the future but to see through a chance into its concrete, contingent potencies.

In some sense divination exploits the fact that contingency itself is not the derivation of the actual from an arbitrary set of possibilities but an effect of a dynamic tension within the actual itself.9

Instead of throwing dice, shuffling cards, or sorting yarrow stalks, the randonaut queries a QRNG for a coordinate. The answer is given in the form of coordinates that promise a set of symbols for the querent to contemplate. Maybe it is the very act of submitting to the fundamental force of contingency that triggers contingency to manifest in synchronistic ways. Randonauts who journey to their coordinates are usually hyper-aware of their surrounding and their consciousness temporarily finds itself in diviner's time, a term coined by professor of musicology and Weird Studies researcher Phil Ford as an expansion of Joshua Ramey's divining cause:

The divining cause gives us the logic of occasion. It accounts not only for what things happen but when, and for the significance of their timing. [...] Unlike formal or final causes, the divining cause feels like something. There is a temporality proper to it that registers on the human organism much as musical time does. [...] Time organized by the divining cause I will call diviner's time. It is a peculiar temporality in which the sign, leaden with dread or effulgent with promise, announces itself in experience. Diviner's time is structured by repetition: an act of divination gives us the sign of something to happen in the future, and then something happens in our experience to manifest that sign. The repetition between these two occurences is exact — the omen and its realization chime together in perfect resonance. And yet, paradoxically, they are always varied, and in ways that cannot be predicted. Same guy, different wig. In a divinatory result, there is a feeling of inevitability — a promise kept, or a doom one has not managed to escape, in fact could never have managed to escape — and yet we are always surprised, somehow. Thus, for the diviner, the repetition of a sign in experience is always unexpected and yet, in the moment of its happening, feels foreordained and inescapable.10

Dice

Having entered diviner's time and journeying to their destination, randonauts allow synchronicities to unfold. Randonauts are Diviners. After unpacking randomness and time, in the next part let us return to the central topic from the beginning of this article: Place.

...or to again quote Elie Ayache:

contingency is what happens, what occurs, what arrives (ce qui arrive), what takes place. What arrives has to arrive in a place. Events take place: they don't take time.11

What Ayache means by that is while possibility needs chronological time in order to step back and forth, from the fictive alternative worlds to the realization of the real world, contingency needs place.


Part 1 | Part 3


  1. Martel, Jean-François. Beyond Doubt: The Anthropocene and the Restoration of Faith. (forthcoming monograph). 

  2. Martel, JF. Reality is Analog. metapsychosis.com 

  3. Cournot, Antoine Augustin; Moore, Merritt H. An Essay on the Foundations of Our Knowledge. Liberal Arts Press, 1956. IV. 

  4. Ayache, Elie. The Medium of Contingency: An Inverse View of the Market. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. pg. 21 

  5. Ibid. pg. 20 

  6. Ibid. pg. 82 

  7. Cournot, Antoine Augustin; Moore, Merritt H. An Essay on the Foundations of Our Knowledge. Liberal Arts Press, 1956. pg. 123 

  8. Ramey, Joshua. Contingency Without Unreason. 2014. Angelaki, Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 19, 2014. pg. 40 

  9. Ibid. pg. 41 

  10. Ford, Phil. Diviner's Time. https://www.weirdstudies.com/66 

  11. Ayache, Elie. The Blank Swan: The End of Probability. Wiley, 2010. Ch. 18.1.5 

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