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The Chaos Conundrum Paperback – November 17, 2013
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About the Author
Aaron John Gulyas is the author of many history education and scholarly popular culture resources, as well as the 2013 books "Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist: Alien Contact Tales since the 1950s" and "In Fandom’s Shadow: Being a Doctor Who Fan from the 1990s to Today." He also contributed a chapter to "Doctor Who in Time and Space" and wrote the foreword to "Posthuman Blues, Vol. I" by Mac Tonnies.
Gulyas received his BA in History from Hanover College in 1998, and an MA in United States History from Indiana University-Indianapolis in 2003. He worked in state government, publishing, the technology field and finally teaching, landing at Mott Community College, where he has taught since 2006. He has presented numerous scholarly papers at conferences for organizations like the American Culture Association, the Popular Culture Association, the Educational Technology Organization of Michigan, and others. A card-carrying netizen, he maintains a website called History, Teaching and the Strange at ajgulyas.com, and is on Twitter as @firkon, where he can often be found pontificating on which version of "Doctor Who" is the best.
Gulyas lives near Flint, Michigan, with his wife and son.
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After the reader’s appetite is whetted by Nick Redfern’s Foreword, Gulyas offers an introduction to the non-rational as opposed to the irrational, along with the concept of atemporality. Much of The Weird operates in the non-rational. What makes this book interesting and its topics enjoyable is that the non-rational is often fun--fun to read, fun to speculate on, and fun to write about. There is much humor infused in this book and I found myself smiling at times, particularly as the author recounted his attempt to “investigate” a crop circle during his college days.
The first chapter, “Ghosts,” asks whether ghosts are but “a tangible manifestation of a historical residue.” The second chapter, “Experiences,” recounts some high strangeness from the author’s life. The next chapter recounts the joy that is reading a Gray Barker book, particularly his _They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers_. Barker truly did write with a “sense of art and passion” and I wish that Gulyas had spent more time in this chapter fleshing that out.
Chapter four is entitled “Space Demons!” and is much different than the rest of the essays. For this essay, this reviewer would award Professor Gulyas with a F. It is extremely important for one to define their terms precisely, but Gulyas does not do so. This chapter is, frankly, a muddled mess. Categories are not defined and the author lumps disparate elements together that should not be put together. As the essay begins, it is not entirely clear what the author means by “Fundamentalist Christianity.” He seems to be referring to dispensational theology and its premillennialism, which morphed in the 1920s onward and blended into some forms of evangelicalism. So when he uses the term “fundamentalist thought” he really means “dispensational thought.” There are several instances of “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” being used together, but these are two different strands of Christianity. The fundamentalist Christian would tell you that they are not an evangelical. Gulyas then uses the term “dominionism” which, for how he describes it, means theonomy, a term he only uses once towards the end of the chapter. I would like to ask the author about this connection. Does not premillennialism discount the dominionism he describes? Would dominionism fall more broadly into postmillennialism rather than pre, or not, or, is there a tension between the two ideas? Basically, in this chapter and at points that follow, Gulyas, who self-identifies as a Lutheran, seems to consider any form of Christianity outside of Lutheranism to be “fringe” and fundamentalist. Witness his citation of an author from the New Apostolic Reformation who he describes as fundamental. No one in that movement would describe themselves as fundamentalists and fundamentalists see that movement as heretical. And many evangelicals would bristle at the NAR being termed “evangelical.” In another instance, he refers to a development largely held within charismatic movements as “evangelical.” Many evangelicals claim that these developments are outside of evangelicalism. Hence, it would be much more precise to write about the charismatic emphasis on spiritual warfare than calling it evangelical. Gulyas uses the locution “para-evangelical fringe” as a sneer but when he describes his own Lutheranism, he provides a definition that defines the heart of evangelicalism. So the question remains, What exactly does this author think evangelicalism is as compared to the tenets of his own denomination?
In addition, this fourth chapter jumps around across many topics, from “fundamentalism” to Cathy O’Brien’s _Trance: Formation of America_ with very little offered in terms of transitional sentences or transitional bridges to these ideas. It is a hodge-podge of topics, loosely connected, if at all. The faltering organization of this chapter also muddles and undermines the ideas and points the author attempts to make. For instance, it is not clear to me, as written, whether Gulyas is lumping Two Kingdoms theology into dominionism or not. I would remind the author that Two Kingdoms theology originates in Luther--who he quotes approvingly--but then he seems to put down the system later on (or perhaps not, that is how unclear his writing becomes). My critique is not one concerning personal opinions; the issue here is that Gulyas is not factually accurate and at times his writing is less than lucid and his points unclear. I share with Gulyas a concern over the topics he raises in this chapter (such as the influence of dispensationalism on foreign policy and the intentions of those who hold to theonomy) but one can barely begin to consider his thoughts when they are surrounded by so many factual errors and categorical mistakes.
The book then gets back on a better track. The fifth chapter discusses Wild Bill Cooper and his fusion of the paranormal and political conspiracy theories, with a pinch of paranoia thrown in. Gulyas writes, “The warped genius of Cooper was his ability to blend a number of disparate memes that originally emerged in different contexts into a narrative that many found compelling.” Not knowing much about Cooper I found a lot of ideas to consider in this chapter and the author made me desire to read more on this topic.
“New Ideas and New Media” is the sixth chapter which rightfully laments that the best days of “Coast to Coast AM” and some other shows have gone by. This is not a false nostalgia but a recognition that a period of “tremendous ferment in the paranormal world” has seemed to past. The next chapter discusses Contactees and powerfully notes that the conception of alien “intelligence” is “irrevocably grounded in an anthropocentric framework.” The next chapter, “Exopolitics,” elucidates a number of questions underlying the aims and intensions of that movement and asks whether adherents to exopolitics and its “citizen hearings” could ever truly be satisfied.
The ninth chapter tackles Roswell and the author is correct to show that there are so many other interesting and important topics beyond Roswell. The tenth and last chapter ruminations on the ghosts of what has past and what could be. But I was not completely sure at times what this chapter meant.
A weakness of the book, besides the extremely poor fourth chapter, is that it is uneven. I do not mean uneven in terms of essay length. Indeed, the rather short chapter on media is my favorite. But the book is uneven at times in how far ideas are fleshed out. Surely the well-read Gulyas knows more about archaeoacoustics than its Wikipedia page, although that is the only source he cites. What exactly is this phenomenon? In addition, in this discussion, Gulyas uses the term “pink noise” without offering a definition. The author sometimes introduces topics without describing them sufficiently for an average reader. Likewise, many of the copious footnotes should have been included in the main body of the text. At times Gulyas provides a précis of a case in the body of the text while other times such summaries are relegated to the footnotes. Overall, his assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge on the topics he discusses are uneven.
The best strength of the book is its personal nature. This is one person’s reflection on The Weird. It is not an attempt to solve the issues but instead it examines the range of ideas that encircle various phenomena. The author wants to get the reader to think more deeply about the issues and _The Chaos Conundrum_ is largely successful in that goal.
Now I will also say that I was lucky enough to look at all of these subjects through something of a lens of skepticism. I soaked up my science classes in school with enthusiasm and learned the art of researching and questioning things early on. Part of that may also have been due to me watching a LOT of a certain 70’s-era cartoon featuring an anthropomorphic Great Dane and his teenage companions who taught me that no matter how scary a situation may seem there is ALWAYS a man behind the mask. Who knew that Saturday morning cartoons could teach a rational scientific worldview?
Thank you, Scooby-Doo!!
But my love of these subjects continues to this day. I am always drawn to the metaphysical section of my favorite bookstores, and I still try to keep up to date on the latest information coming from the various fields of “the weird”. But it’s a different world now that it was in the 1970’s. Looking back on it now it seems like it was a very naive scene back then, free of the paranoia and “shadow government” (almost exclusively right-wing) rhetoric that seems to dominate a lot of the conversation these days, particularly in the ufology field.
So one day recently I was surfing around on the web and came across a small print house named Starhawk Publishing. Their latest release was from an author named Aaron John Gulyas. It purported to be a collection of essays on “UFOs, Ghosts, & Other High Strangeness in our Non-Rational & Atemporal World.” It looked interesting, and I like supporting small presses, so I ordered the book. It arrived quickly, a slim volume at 133 pages of text with a well-documented bibliography and index.
I was glad to see that this wasn’t a sensationalist treatment of the subject matter, but rather a sober look at weird phenomena from a different perspective, one that stresses looking at the paranormal as less of a set of absolutes and more of a cultural phenomenon. And I think this was the right approach. It isn’t really a question of whether or not UFOs or ghosts are “real” in a physical or psychic sense. That these manifestations are now a part of our shared cultural landscape is the key salient point. In that sense, belief is moot, since these subjects are now so embedded in our popular culture that Bigfoot sells beef jerky and the town of Roswell, New Mexico has become a tourist haven for UFO enthusiasts of all ages. Whether you like it or not, whether you even NOTICE it or not, you come into contact with the detritus of the paranormal in all sorts of media.
Gulyas frames a good part of his discussions with the idea of “atemporality”. This is the idea that technology has given us the ability to see time as less of a linear experience (past-present-future) and more of an immersive process where memories and experiences can be manipulated and blurred through an intersection of the physical and digital worlds. In other words, new technologies can change our remembrance of the past, our experience of the present, and our imagination of the future. The idea of atemporality is a strong tool with which to view modern concepts of the paranormal, and explains a lot of how the various fields of exploration have changed over the decades.
Gulyas views ghosts as more than merely spooky specters. His perspective is that ghosts can be memories of place and presence, settled into our subconscious and ready to leap out at strange times through mental associations. He has a great section on his experiences as an amateur UFO investigator, hot on the trail of a mysterious crop circle. He discusses some of the more controversial figures in the fields of ufology, including Gray Barker and Bill Cooper. He confronts the onset of radical fundamentalist Christianity and how it has slowly infiltrated the UFO community, leading to discussions of demonology where we used to talk of little space men. Gulyas has a chapter on exopolitics, or the political ramifications of how we as a species might interact with actual aliens. He boils Roswell down to it’s current configuration as a cultural touchstone; SOMETHING happened there in 1947, but it’s now less about what actually occurred as opposed to how embedded the alien narrative has become in the modern psyche.
Mostly, though, I was fascinated by his material outlining the origins of the paranoid conspiracy movement and it’s ties to right-wing politics and militia groups. This idea has percolated into the mainstream through television shows like the X-Files and real-life enablers like Alex Jones, who pander to an audience that is convinced that the US and other world governments are part of a massive cover-up determined to keep alien technology secret at all costs. This type of thinking ties very well into fears of a New World Order and the loss of freedom for individuals. The truth is out there. Or is it?
I sort of long for the days when the subject matter of the paranormal was simpler and fresher. It’s not as much fun as it used to be, and it’s why I tend to read older books by John Keel and Jacques Vallee if I reach for something off of the “weird” shelf. Clearly “something” is at work here, and there may be an intelligence behind it, there may not be. We may never be intellectually equipped enough to know one way or the other. But it’s apparent that the faith in the non-rational does have wide ranging effects that can touch us in many ways. Belief in the supernatural holds much power, influencing entire cultures in some cases. We can’t ignore the potential effects on the “real” world.
All in all it was a very interesting read. It’s a quick journey, Gulyas doesn’t want to waste too much of your time. He just wants to get you thinking about things in a bit of a different way, and I personally think that’s a great thing. Seek this book out if you’re like me and you have a fascination with little green men and things that stalk the outer reaches of the subconscious.