Over two years later, a “return to normal” remains the pandemic’s most enduring political promise, a token of hope to hedge against continued death and precarity. Held within this recursive promise, however, is a prima facie condition that deserves interrogation. What, exactly, is the “normal” to which we will return? Will capitalism and its attendant crises no longer demand our attention absent a continual state of emergency? The coherence and stability of the “normal” eludes us. Georges Canguilhem sees the normal as itself a chimeric category that, from the perspective of medicine and science, is not so distant from the “pathological” it is meant to foil.
In the contemporary moment, what we might term paranormativity has further infringed on our so-called norms, unfolding in internet circles, blue-chip art institutions, and scenes of communal mourning. We need look only to the ascendance of #Witchtok, the surge of astrology apps, and the recent proliferation of art programming such as Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (2018), Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist (2019), and Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group (2021), among many others, to get a sense of this phenomenon. With the popular renewal of astrological, mystical, and pagan practices and discourses, we are witnessing a contemporary cultural demand for paranormal knowledge that exceeds the epistemological limitations of the secular. In recent years much critical attention has been directed toward traversing these limitations, as evidenced by recuperations of metaphysics and studies of non-Western approaches to knowledge. Scholars such as M. Jacqui Alexander, Jeffrey Sconce, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Harry Garuba, and Jefferey Kripal, among many others, have helped shape a field that resists the transformation of the paranormal into a symbolic register, turning instead to events and phenomena that defy the assumptive principles of common sense or reasoning. In some traditions, the spirit world has long been connected to political resistance: of the Haitian Revolution, C. L. R. James wrote that “voodoo [sic] was the medium of the conspiracy.”1
This special issue considers the imponderable in relation to the normative: alien abduction, parallel worlds, visceral mysticism, possession by prion viruses, ghostly mediation, and more. The issue features the critical work of five authors, as well as three artistic interventions: poetry by Cristina Peri Rossi (translated from the Spanish by Liz Rose), as well as Oksana Vasyakina and Elena Kostyleva (translated from the Russian by Helena Kernan). Each contribution speaks to and across different valences of the paranormative, attending to forms of life that do not return to “the normal” but instead stage its undoing. As more and more of our shared present converges with the paranormal, we ask: To what extent can the “paranormative” resist capital and white supremacy, and to what extent is even the shifting ground of the normal open to commodification?
The first of our contributions, Jack W. Chen’s “Poetry, Ghosts, Mediation,” turns to classical Chinese ghost poetry—poems literally authored by ghosts—to reflect on the paranormative dimensions of lyric poetry as such. Building on and departing from contemporary media theory, Chen’s account of ghost poetry as an analog “necrotechnology” through which the dead both speak and take “a kind of ghostly possession” of the mind and body of the reader gives us an alternative to influential positions on the nature of lyric poetry currently on offer, whether transcendental or historicist. What is interesting for Chen about classical Chinese ghost poetry has little to do with mimesis or representation; rather, the particular ontology of the ghost—one that has, in Chen’s words, “no original substance . . . except that which is within the substrate that provides it with substance”—evinces a concept of mediation that helps us think about the nature of lyric poetry in general. Refining Jacques Derrida’s notion of hauntology (l’hantologie), Chen argues that the ghost is only ever a mediated trace; that is, for the ghost the medium is quite literally the message—“it is only ever mediation.” Much the same can be said for lyric more generally, as “what poetry communicates through the affordances of language is constituted by those affordances.” That is, even when authorship is not attributed to ghosts, the nature of the lyric poem as such is isomorphic with that of the ghost: “the poem as the ghost in analog form, the mediation of the ghost as poetic speech, both uttered in the empty air and transcribed for the literary-historical archive.”
Also looking to the literary as a site in which the normal is interrogated and destabilized, Delali Kumavie’s contribution, “The Para-Worlds of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” advances a notion of the paranormal as “the distortion of the system” of ongoing and constitutive structural violence “that can be seen yet cannot be made real.” Through close reading of Arimah’s genre-defying 2017 short story collection and its interweaving of magical, animist, mythical, scientific, and realist modes, Kumavie draws out the paranormal as both a frame and a concept—para here is taken seriously as denoting the ancillary, rather than the oppositional, character of the concept under consideration—that renegotiates our relationship to the world-constituting violence emblematized by the events of 1492. In contrast to accounts that would seek out a post- or decolonial “third space” of hybrid or cosmopolitan subjecthood as a form of resistance, Kumavie leverages the paranormal to make visible the constitutive violence undergirding modern epistemological categories. Arimah’s work, then, is not an example of magical realism, sci-fi, or speculative fiction, for such a designation would, for Kumavie, place her squarely within the same modern epistemological paradigm, characterized by “modernizing” imperial violence, on the one hand, and “originary” Indigenous culture, on the other. Rather, what Arimah’s work offers is the revelation of “the parallel worlds on which the world is structured,” which destabilizes the normal, “reveal[ing] the cracks in the world and its unease with Blackness.”
Brandon S. Callender, like Kumavie, is interested in how to theorize Blackness vis-à-vis the paranormative. Callender’s essay “The Devil Finds Use: Black Queers Do The Exorcist” operates against the reigning claim within Black horror studies today: that “normal” Black life is more horrific than the supernatural or, we might say, the paranormal. Callender traces this notion to James Baldwin’s 1976 critique of The Exorcist in The Devil Finds Work, where Baldwin disidentifies with the paranormative horrors on offer in the film, instead turning to the systemic horrors of the normative world. Callender seeks to recuperate what might be lost in this dismissal of paranormative horror in favor of “yet another sobering encounter with the real” by reading three contemporary Black gay authors united by an “idiosyncratic and even playful [attachment]” to The Exorcist. Here Callender’s interest is in how Larry Duplechan’s Eight Days a Week (1985), James Earl Hardy’s B-Boy Blues (1994), and G. Winston James’s Shaming the Devil (2009) mobilize an aesthetics of possession to queer ends, troubling the boundaries between agency and passivity. Thinking with José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of disidentification, Callender argues that Black and queer subjects can disruptively but productively locate themselves within the horror genre in ways that may have little to do with its intended reception. Sites of paranormativity—here of possession—become spaces for vexed, complex identification and disidentification, and sites of pleasure. Increasing the purview of Black horror studies to entail sites of the periphery of the normative ensures that we resist the naturalization of a single story of Black life as trauma, and the Black audience as obligated to confront that “singular collective trauma” in every experience of the genre. Multiple traumas, and multiple pleasures too, Callender reveals, can proliferate as they ramify across disidentifications with the camp of possessive aesthetics.
Pivoting away from the potentialities of literature and cinema, our final two contributions interrogate the paranormative dimensions of ontology, and indeed of nonrelation. Kathleen Powers’s piece, “The Prion as Nature’s Undead,” turns directly to Georges Canguilhem’s criterion for life, biological normativity, to examine the prion, a protein that infects the central nervous system and reproduces without the presence of DNA. The power of the prion and its associated, notoriously incurable diseases themselves appear ghostly: the prion cannot be destroyed by the body or regular sterilization precautions; it eludes modern pharmacology. Powers argues that Canguilhem’s biological normativity is a spatial phenomenon that the prion defies, “perpetuat[ing] itself in a biology without language where the reproductive principle is not code but form.” Rather, the prion “misfolds,” producing the surrounding environment in its image. If Canguilhem imagines the organism “in conversation with its environment,” a metaphor that evokes some dynamism, Powers offers a reading of how information exchange occurs for the prion unidirectionally along a fold—the environment, in this paranormative model, does not speak back to the prion. By attending to the peripheries of our norms of life—and, indeed, looking toward an eventual future in which those norms and gene-based philosophy of biology no longer hold—Powers offers a philosophy of biology that attends to the analysis of space and form rather than the traditional analysis of language.
Finally, Jonathan Jacob Moore’s “Starships and Slave Ships: Black Ontology and the UFO Abduction Phenomenon” uses an Afro-pessimist grammar to understand the case of Barney Hill, the first and only popular Black alien abductee. For Moore, the absence of Black abductees in the many studies of the phenomenon is a question not of representation but of ontology. Following recent work in Black studies that “calls into question the popular assumption that Black life can be, unencumbered by the structural violence that initiated and conditions it,” Moore posits a correspondence between the constitutively white experience of alien abduction and the hold, “the loud and breathing domain of the socially dead.” Borrowing terminology from Frank B. Wilderson, Moore reads alien abduction as an example of “subjective vertigo”—in it “the unauthorized movement of the human body” may trouble the abductee’s self-perception, but never their ontology. The latter—“objective vertigo,” or “the structural violence that constitutes Black life before performative violence arrives on the scene in the form of badge, bad guy, or blue-skinned humanoid”—is something from which non-Black subjects are ontologically immune. Barney Hill fails to be a proper alien abductee, then, because “the alien abduction phenomenon is an experientially inaccessible domain for the Black nonsubject” and, moreover, because “this paranormal event” is in fact “a mundane quality, and the first condition, of Black life.”
Is the experience of the paranormative, then, a site inaccessible to the Black nonsubject, as Moore would have it, or accessible only through disidentifications, following Callender? For Kumavie, the “para-world” of Arimah’s short stories is what reveals the structures of violence of the normative world order, disrupting and contending with them. In this framework, the para-world is both the site of the Black nonsubject’s exclusion and the place where the normative world’s unease with Blackness is uncovered, made legible. Chen and Powers, meanwhile, both offer—in their disparate fields of literature and philosophy of biology—a conception of the paranormative as a kind of possession: for Chen, we can conceive of the classical Chinese ghost poem, as well as the lyric more broadly, as possessing the mind and body of the reader, while for Powers, the prion reproduces spatially by enfolding and compressing—we might say possessing—its environment. The paranormative in both these readings upends more typical positions through which to conceptualize the nature of lyric poetry or gene biology. Indeed, we might say that what unites these disparate pieces is their impulse to read paranormatively: cutting across identifications, and through variously encoded disciplinary ways of thinking and writing, each essay in this special issue interrogates our understandings of what is “normal.” As life—biological and otherwise—recedes from such norms, these essays ask after what lies beside them.