In a recent online talk Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Classics professor at Princeton, told of a conference he was attending in Florida on the subject of Roman slavery. He was appropriately surprised that the restaurant venue for the conference dinner had once been the home of the owner of a slave plantation. He took this coincidence seriously. It made him further reflect on the cultural politics of Classical Studies, the complicity of the discipline in colonialism.
This is an experience of synchronicity, of meaningful coincidence, where things align or connect without there being any proximate or apparent cause.
Synchronicity is often associated with the paranormal, where two or more experiences or events are taken to be unnaturally, strangely connected. An email arrives from a friend just as one thinks of them.
I suggest we should not be distracted by arguments that a synchronicity is simply, statistically, chance event, a manifestation perhaps of apophenia (seeing pattern and meaning when there is none) or confirmation bias (one finds what one is looking for).
Instead one might reframe the matter of synchronicity and focus on sensemaking in complex lifeworlds. In a post-humanist phenomenology our experiences are part of the world we seek to understand and the familiar radical separation of knower and known, perceiver and world perceived is treated as secondary to the primacy of entanglement.
Let’s explore an archaeology of the concept.
One might actively seek signs in the present of things to come. The augur of antiquity connected the particular flight of certain birds with current events, or questions posed, with the future and possible courses of action. In Homer, an eagle observed with a dove in its claws portends the return of Odysseus and the way he will deal with his rivals. In an encounter with magpies, I still think of the rhyme from my childhood – One for sorrow, two for joy … .
Aeschylus has the Titan Prometheus say this about what he did for humanity.
Aye, more than that, ’twas IAeschylus: Prometheus Bound. Translated G. Murray 1931
Sorted the divers paths of prophecy.
I was the first to judge of dreams, what kind
Fulfilment bear; I read the inward mind
Of the unintended word and the stray sign
Met by the road. I did the flight divine
Of great and ravening birds, I first did mark
Which held the shining future, which the dark;
I showed their ways, I showed of diverse wings
The feuds and friendships and cohabitings.
I in the deep heart of the victim slain
Revealed what hue, what surface, maketh plain
God’s pleasure; a dread shapeliness withal
I made man see in liver and in gall,
Howe’er they changed. I read the burning sign
Of thigh-bone savour-wrapped and tapering chine.
Thus man to knowledge came of things to be,
Deep hid before. Yea, I put eyes to see
Into the face of fire, and gave to him
A fount of vision that before was dim.
His name is usually taken to mean forethought, foresight, figuring out what is to come. Prometheus was something of a trickster, quick, smart, cunning, like his sister Metis. Metis lent her name to a form of cunning intelligence, getting on with irreducibly ambiguity, navigating complexity, being able to grab opportunities, reading the signs even in the absence of any secure information.
Take synchronicity to be a feature of all reading for signs where one notes how “similar” things coincide, without there being any apparent cause. Synchronicity is an ordering system, a means of making sense.
Here are some features of this wider conception.
In synchronicity like is combined with unlike. Different events, experiences, worlds are brought together, juxtaposed, blended in one glance, in one instant, an act of synthesis. Meaning, sense emerges from the (forced, perceived, assumed) interaction between what are taken as incongruent conceptual frames. Synchronicity is metaphor and Gestalt.
Synchronicities are typically unique associations, actualities (conjoined presents) that point to multiple possible readings and meanings. They might teach or trick, guide or distract, be dreams or delusions, benign or destructive, positive or problematic, telepathic or treacherous. In this a synchronicity combines multiplicity with uniqueness.
Synchronicity explores the borderland between meaning and the specificity of space and time, where chance meets alignment, when external and internal circumstances align in meaningful coincidence. It links the observable and unknowable, the effect of the particular and specific with what reaches beyond the local. In this nonlocal effect, certain qualities manifest themselves in different or proximate places. Synchronicity is a parallelism that interrupts and displaces, often raising awkward questions.
And with an emotional charge. One is surprised. The psychic charge makes synchronicities meaningful, producing a numinous effect on the person experiencing them. The charge and meaning of a synchronistic event suggests that it be understood symbolically, not just intellectually.
This is why Jung connected synchronicity with archetypes. As generative forms or prototypes, archetypes link inner and outer experiences. Symbolic patterns are always with us, but in synchronicity they demand our attention as apparently autonomous patterns of meaning beyond us, part of our self extended in and through experience (the post-phenomenological self as distributed ecology, as assemblage, beyond self-contained experiencing selfhood).
Gibellina, Sicily. Earthquake January 15 1968. Cretto (concrete land art) by Alberto Burri 1984-1989, completed 2015. Road development, built with relief funds after the earthquake, 200 meters, unfinished. Visit with Cliff McLucas June 23 1999: field survey of Belice Valley; project Monte Polizzo Excavations. Transparencies scanned February 15 2013. Newspaper photo February 1968 posted on web site at unknown date; photo accessed online August 14 2020.
The actuality of trauma.
Temporal/spatial collage – topology?
See comments on allegory – [Link].
One might open oneself to notice meaningful coincidence. Synchronicity may also be noticed, prompted, manipulated as a rhetorical tactic.
Synchronicity belongs with metaphor and other rhetorical tropes of association. A metaphor says this is that. Synechdoche says this is a part of that. Metonymy says this stands in for that. Katachresis isn’t so easy going, and says you probably don’t want to put these things together, but let’s see what happens when you do. Katachresis nudges one to handle frictions and incongruities and look for patterns and connections that one had never anticipated before. Abuse what is accepted! Juxtapose – abusively! Discordant katachresis is a kind of Brechtian verfremdung, making the familiar awkward and strange. Dislocation. Displacement.
When metaphors and other connective tropes are synchronistic, emergent, spontaneous, self-organizing expressions of our dynamic stream of experience, they prompt the work of imagination, encoding that bridges conscious and unconscious lifeworlds, material and transpersonal realms.
Such metaphors can be deeply transformative — more than mere language. They are a technology for changing our behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. Intentional contact and immersion in these metaphors can transform our spirit and soul.
Synchronicity is one of the possible temporal aspects of juxtaposition such as metaphor and katachresis. Others are actuality and kairos. Actuality is the articulation of past-in-present. Kairos is the moment of opportunity, the particular conjuncture, configuration that makes a moment the time to act. Kairos refers to timeliness, and is specific and pragmatic. All these forms of articulation, these alignments across time and space, involve making temporality and spatiality relative and irrational. Yes – then can also be now. Yes – here can also be there. Just imagine! Speculate! Yes – now is the time to act!
Metis is the principle of such grounded and savvy smartness.
What might such juxtaposing, combinatory synchronistic tactics deliver?
The tactics raise questions of connection, correlation, pattern. What are we seeing? They focus on the valencies of experience and emotive charge that surpasses rationalization, incorporating the emotive, and ethical questions – how might one feel and act in such circumstances, with such prompts?Causality is placed in parentheses as synchronicity nudges us beyond the subject focus of most phenomenology. And the interruption introduces doubt, the need to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty as a structural feature of our experience of lifeworld. The incessant flow of synchronicities requires us to hold together, simultaneously, alternate, different, other voices. Polyvocality.
Synchronicity raises awkward questions of voice and agency. Grant Parker recently reminded me that Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha discussed katachresis as a disruptive option in the context of colonial, subaltern and post-colonial voices. Edward Said talked of “contrapuntal” writing. Synchronicity interrupts, disrupts, opens space that other voices might be heard, other modes of articulation and mediation – informal anecdote, personal reflection, an antiquarian chorography [Link], scholartistry [Link], a dialectical image, a deep map [Link], a spreadsheet, a story, verfremdung, and many other poetic options in research creation [Link].