Alastair Morgan reviews Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other by Ben Alderson-Day (Manchester University Press, 2023).
Ben Alderson-Day’s wonderful book, Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other, tracks the experience of the “unseen other” through a range of limit-experiences. Starting with conversations about psychosis and voices that have an uncanny presence, we move through narratives of Antarctic explorers, robots simulating and provoking strange experiences, spirit voices and imaginary companions. The book is an attempt to track down an experience that is often hidden and not discussed. Many of the interlocutors in the book only speak about these experiences when finally asked or at the end of other discussions.
This is perhaps not surprising as the experience of presence, of a visitation from an “unseen other or others” is ineffable in multiple senses. The experience itself has an in-between quality. Is it a perception or a belief? It often feels like a sensation, but what kind of sensation can it be, if nothing clear is being sensed and it is not even certain which of the five senses is being used? Early in the book, one of Alderson-Day’s contributors describes the experience as a kind of “thickness in the air”, a strange transformation in the atmosphere.
Such a thickening of the air brings with it an unnameable sense of threat and foreboding that is described vividly by people experiencing psychosis. Alderson-Day (2023: 238) describes the experiences of presence that some voice-hearers encounter as: “… something visceral; it is happening to their body and the space around them. And it is a sensation in space, although what that space is remains very unclear.”
What is distinctive about these diffuse yet visceral experiences of presence is a strange interplay between presence and absence, the strong sensation of something “being there” without an identifiable body or mind, yet at the same time, the shifting of individuality, the loss of a certain stability or place in the world. In his early work, Emmanuel Levinas (2003: 66) writes of an “acute feeling of being held fast” constituted by a range of experiences that introduce a discordance or feeling of homelessness. He terms this fundamental experience the “il y a…”; the “there is” of experience, a feeling of presence that also involves a recoil and horror of existence:
“[…] an absolutely unavoidable presence […] It is immediately there. There is no discourse. Nothing responds to us, but this silence, without it mattering there is, without our being able to fix a substantive to this term […] Its anonymity is essential […] a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace […] One is exposed”. (Levinas 2003: 33-34).
This is an unavoidable presence that announces itself but is strangely indeterminate and threatening. For Levinas, this is a fundamental experience of consciousness, that discloses an enchainment to existence and the demand for some kind of escape.
Presence and Selfhood
In a remarkable section of the book, Alderson-Day writes of the experiences of presence of people diagnosed with both Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia. In these conditions, people experience florid (literally of a flowery man in one case) senses of unseen others but, at the same time, an awareness of these presences as indications of the decay of their faculties, of the loss of the sense of self. Alderson-Day (2023: 108) writes of a person “…preparing for dinner guests who may never arrive”, and both knowing that these presences are not real but constantly questioning this reality, inhabiting an in-between space. Such a space is saturated with a sense of the self coming apart as easily as “…pulling the loose threads on a sweater” (Alderson-Day, 2023: 86).
This experience of presence as visceral, threatening and dissolving the self is only one part of the story. Alderson-Day is equally interested in those experiences that are functional and affirm selfhood. Here, we are concerned with presences that occur to support and encourage people to preserve their lives in extreme situations. The archetypal example of such a “Third Man” presence is recounted on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to the South Pole, where the unannounced visitor encourages and marshals the depleted resources of the explorers. Such functional accounts of presences view them as resources for self-preservation. These presences are not threatening or hostile.
However, even in these situations the presences are not purely encouraging, they may also demand something of the traveller, a sense of responsibility and caring for the presence. There is a sense that presences arise in extreme cases of isolation to bolster and recreate a fundamental intersubjectivity of experience, to create a dialogue in the absence of all dialogue, demanding responsibility and giving encouragement. Here, the self is enlarged by the presence that fills in for the absent others, often manifesting as voices of loved ones or visions of happier times.
Can we say that these two distinct accounts of presence are even the same phenomenon? In the investigation of presence, is there even a unified experience of presence that can guide our inquiry? The great virtue of Alderson-Day’s book is that he leaves this as an open question, drawing similarities and differences across different experiences without any futile attempt at mastery or the imposition of a dominant synthesising narrative. Instead, we are offered a mosaic of experiences and explanations that revolve around the fragility of the embodied self as a delicate composition. We compose ourselves tacitly through the lived body. This notion of the composition of the world through embodiment is a phrase that Merleau-Ponty (1994: 9) uses to describe a “founding intentionality” based on a meaningful interaction and interpenetration with the environment and with others. Such a process is interminable and ongoing, always exposed and determined by a self that is unstable and fluid. Experiences of presence sometimes affirm a stable feeling of selfhood especially in extreme experiences, but other feelings of presence result in complete dissonance, the inability to go on. Emotional states, neurological processes and life experiences may determine which experience of presence we have, but these experiences arrive unbidden, even if we try to put ourselves in a state to receive them, as August Strindberg did in the experiments with selfhood that Alderson-Day describes; we don’t know what will arrive.
The Mosaic of Presence: Phenomenology and Evolution
If all this makes the book sound too poetic or philosophical, that is my fault not Alderson-Day’s. Alderson-Day is clearly committed to scientific enquiries and much of the book recounts empirical investigations the author has conducted or reports on other scientific studies. The book is also beautifully written and is admirably readable. I read it twice, once in the garden with several beers, and once with a notebook preparing for this review. The book stands up to both forms of reading, which is a rare feat.
The pieces of this mosaic of presence are skilfully assembled and Alderson-Day leaves us with several key ideas to guide thinking and future research. A central motif is phenomenological. It is concerned with our tacit sense of our embodiment, the spaces that our body inhabits and how such a tacit sense can either become disordered or enlarged (or both) through experiences of presence.
Alderson-Day (2023: 84) describes this succinctly as the: “…fundamental malleability of body, space and self. This is a kind of self we are constructing all the time, but it’s a temporary structure, susceptible to sudden unpredictable winds and currents”. The relationship between bodies, our sense of space, and the emotional and affective elements of lived embodiment are central in understanding the presences that appear through fundamental alterations in our lived embodiment neurologically, diurnally (through falling asleep and waking up), or existentially in extreme situations.
Alongside this phenomenological account is a broadly evolutionary account that Alderson-Day terms the “predictive” or “expectation” hypothesis. We are primed to respond and even to construct our worlds through certain patterns of expectation and inference. When such patterns are broken down or fail, then our experiences of the world shift in unexpected ways. Experiences of presence as threatening can then be linked with notions of hypervigilance and threat, and hypnagogic experiences can be related to feelings of vulnerability in near-sleep experiences. An evolutionary account can be aligned with phenomenological accounts to build a larger picture.
In Dialogue with ‘Unseen Others’
Finally, there is a hypothesis based on the fundamental intersubjectivity of human experience. We construct ourselves in dialogue with others and as Alderson-Day notes even when we are alone, we often conduct internal dialogues. It is no coincidence that many experiences of presence described in the book often occur in extreme states of internal or external isolation. In isolation, we construct the other as a response to ourselves, and how that response appears may be contingent upon our emotional states and individual life-histories. We need others, even “unseen others”, to confirm our sense of self.
Can we then say we are the authors of these others, who are multiple reflections of ourselves? Alderson-Day (2023: 223) gestures toward this conclusion when he writes that “…we are the authors of our own plurality”. But everything depends on the sense of the author here. One of the studies discussed in the book investigates how authors of fiction often experience their invented characters as existing beyond the creative process, as somehow “talking back” to the author. If we are authors of our multiple selves, then it is a creation that exists beyond intentionality and design and that returns to accompany or haunt us in ways that are unexpected and unforeseen.
Alderson-Day’s book is essayistic in the best sense of the term. It is an attempt to understand a range of experiences without imposing a dominant explanation. Above all, it respects the particularities of different experiences of presence and allows them to speak beyond any imposition of meaning. Adorno (1984: 160-161) writes of how in the essay form:
“ […] concepts do not build a continuum of operations, thought does not advance in a single direction, rather the aspects of the argument interweave as in a carpet. The fruitfulness of the thoughts depend on the density of this texture. Actually, the thinker does not think but rather transforms himself into an arena of intellectual experience, without simplifying it”.
Alderson-Day’s wonderful book truly represents such an intellectual experience and is a rare achievement as well as being a delight to read.
Adorno, T. W. (1984). The Essay as Form, trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor. New German Critique, 32: 151-171.
Alderson-Day, B. (2023). Presence. The strange science and true stories of the unseen other. Manchester University Press.
Levinas, E. (2003). On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo. Stanford University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1994). The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin R. Smith. Routledge.
About the Author
Alastair Morgan is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, UK. His most recent book is Continental Philosophy of Psychiatry. The Lure of Madness, published with Palgrave MacMillan in 2022. More information can be found here: Alastair Morgan — Research Explorer The University of Manchester. Twitter: @morgan_alastair.