Marja-Liisa Honkasalo Neither Real Nor True – Sharing Voices in the Intersubjective Space and Beyond
Conference Presentation

Marja-Liisa Honkasalo Neither Real Nor True – Sharing Voices in the Intersubjective Space and Beyond


An interest in research of perilous experiences is situated in the liminal zone between art, artistic research, humanities and social sciences besides medical and neuroscience. In modern science, the uncanny or kumma has not been a relevant object for proper studies and consequently, has remained merely excluded or a strange surplus. The Freudian term ‘Unheimlich’[1] corresponds well to what in Finnish is called kumma, meaning weird or odd. Yet, this is not the case with weird experience as interpreted in religious or esoteric discourses, phantasy or entertainment art or as an aesthetic experience. In our society, unless kumma is not interpreted accordingly, it would become a target for psychiatric classification by which it is ranked as a sign of mental disorder with severe and often lifelong consequences of stigma. In addition, modern theories of mind tend to interpret kumma as an intrapersonal and private experience of bounded human mind currently, in increasing frequency, as an object of neuroscience. Our aim with the installation Connecting Phone Booths, presented at the CARPA conference is the opposite – to understand kumma in an intersubjective, contingent social space.

This paper is background for our installation. Its focus is on the loneliness of the kumma experience and its vicissitudes in scientific studies and society. In the interdisciplinary research project Mind and the Other,[2] funded by the Academy of Finland, eight scholars in social sciences and the humanities studied people’s perilous, uncanny experiences: e.g. visions, sounds, apparitions, telepathy, pre-seeing, encounters with the dead or automatic writing, in the form of first-person experiences. Hearing voices without a visible source is one of these experiences. Interestingly, kumma is often expressed with similar terms people have used when describing something as holy, a miracle, unexpected: unspeakable or indescribable and always without any witness. The experiences frequently appear unexpectedly, in the midst of an everyday chore, in familiar conditions and they have the power to change the familiar into something uncanny. They can be perceived as sources of inspiration or as an affective dimension of creativity. However, the dark side of the interpretation is also true with the consequences of probable lifelong stigma.

The installation Connecting Phone Booths that our group [3] set out during the CARPA conference intertwines the scientific, scholarly perspectives on kumma with the arts. Practically, the installation was carried out with help of the Theatre Academy that opened a public phone booth in the main hall with a possibility for a call contact between a voice hearer and a conference participant as a listener. We asked people who hear voices without a visible source [4] to give a call to the booth and tell about their experience and what the voices were talking about. Anyone passing by was able to answer the phone and hear a personal experience of the voice hearers and was consequently able to share their own experiences. Altogether nine voice hearers phoned the booth.

Our installation was built like a kaleidoscope with the aim to study kumma by exposing it to both the arts and sciences and to bring kumma away from its desolation into a shared intersubjective space.

Why is Kumma a Stigmatized Experience in Modern Society?

Outside of the discourses and practices in the arts, the interpretation of the uncanny in modern western cultures is mainly related to social and intellectual exclusion. However, outside the arts, more than half of western people report uncanny experiences, defined as supernatural, paranormal or supranormal.[5] Tanya Luhrmann (2011) calls them sensory overrides [6] meaning sensuous experiences one has in the absence of a source to be sensed and Lisa Blackman (2012) describes them as the human potential of affective and bodily engagement with the world. Considering how often these experiences occur and that they affect over half of the populations studied, they would better be defined as “normal”. However, what makes the phenomena contested and contributes to the main focus of this article is that outside of the arts and artistic practices, the kumma phenomena in western societies are still widely regarded as deviant or pathological.[7]

Scientific assumptions are neither innocent nor objective but based on social and cultural understanding of the world and how to study it. Max Weber highlights how principles such as rationality and efficiency became, along with modernization, the leading forces of modern society. Weber is quite strict with his statement:

The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives. It means something else, namely the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play but rather that one can in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. (Weber 1922/1967, 139)

Currently, what scholars in social sciences and religion call post-secularism (Keane 2013; Nynäs & Lassander 2012) has brought about new spiritual movements in society and the emergence of what several authors (e.g. Heelas & Woodhead 2005; Partridge 2005; Partridge 2004) call ‘re-enchantment’; angels and spirits are perhaps more than ever a part of the everyday. Still, most people, along with the main authorities and social institutions such as science and medicine share the same ontological assumption: the phenomena are neither real nor true. This very point came up when we started the research project Mind and the Other: the afternoon papers Ilta-Sanomat and Iltalehti published ridiculing comments about the future research of the project and claimed that the main national research foundation is wasting money for futile purposes (see Honkasalo 2017).

Opening Up a Shared Space for Unheimlich

The Mind and the Other project received over 200 spontaneous letters [8] of experiences of kumma, which range from a variety of sensuous and multisensory, and always lonely experiences of intuitive thoughts and weird feelings to vivid and powerful experiences, described as unsayable and without anyone other witnessing them. Some people report hearing voices, some see inexplicable things. In addition, people recount, for instance, feeling an obscure sense of presence or someone touching them when no one seems to be around. Another common type of experience is that of meeting the dead, involving dead family members, relatives, friends or pets. Some feel the presence of a deceased loved one or believe that a dead person comes to visit them in the form of a bird or gives them some kind of message or a sign. The experience of kumma is narrated as an unexpected, often extraordinary, uncontrolled, lonely uncanny disruption of their everyday life and of action and practices in the midst of everyday life.

At least in Finland, persons who tell about their sensory overrides – and those who do research on them – are prone to become categorized as deviant or even pathological. The anthropologist Joao Vasconcelos (2008, 22) puts this clearly by writing that the homelessness of the spirit in the world of science is a correlate of the homelessness of the scientist who is committed to research on ’spiritual’ or ’paranormal’ phenomena. The boundary between normal and pathological has long historical roots and several social institutions, notably science, have played a remarkable role in the very processes of the dichotomous shaping of this rootedness (see Ganguilhem 1966/1978).

What makes the boundary such a burning issue? What is so contested about things considered in scientific research neither real nor true? Why are they almost taboos, especially in Finland? Whether or not miracles happen and how to prove them has been a dispute over centuries in history and philosophy (e.g. Keener 2011). Anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas (1966), argue that this kind of a boundary is not a coincidence but a characteristic of the social system. The creation of order produces exclusion and outskirts, which, according to Mary Douglas, is “dirt” not removed but returning. The argument fits well to what people generally understand by rationality, science and scientific norms. The society constantly monitors the boundaries of its integrity and defends it against danger: violation, disloyalty, anomy, or pollution – also considering scientific truth and how scholars can access it. Stigmatization, or marking someone to be insane, is just one strategy. Still others, notably in the field of scientific enquiry, differ significantly from those in the humanities or from people in everyday life considering the criteria for evidence. In natural sciences and the philosophy of science the main concern is about the rigor of evidence, such as verification and falsification. The evidence of “uncertainty”, however, is especially true for people who are accused or victimized, leading to situations where their testimonies or other narrative proofs are effortlessly considered not to be legitimate and not worth of trust.

The problem in this article is tackled on two levels. Drawing on the discussions in the studies of cultures 1) I ask an epistemological question of which kind of knowledge is produced of and by kumma, 2) look into the ethical problem of the value of first-person experience. These are immense themes for a short article. What I want to do is merely shortly sketch out how to study the uncanny through the sharp lens of the two, and by doing so, to modestly contribute, as a scholar in the studies of cultures, to the problematization of some basic cultural assumptions of knowledge and ethics. I myself, as an anthropologist and a scholar in medicine, commenced my research on kumma as a lived and embodied experience. Nevertheless, what I learned during my work was that the knowledge I was able to produce constituted only a limited approach to kumma. I ended up at the limits of explanation in science – but, surprisingly, also of those of understanding. This is my background and the urge for the collaboration with the artists and artistic research that was launched with the Connecting Phone Booth.

Mind and Other – Some Vignettes for Understanding

William James’ (1902) methodological point, according to which considering a given thing’s exaggerations and perversions always leads to a better understanding of its significance constituted the leading idea for our project Mind and the Other. We defined our aim to study uncanny experiences as faculties of the human mind on its margins. James (1902, 334) highlights that phenomena “are best understood when placed within their series, studied in their germ and in their over-ripe decay, and compared with their exaggerated and degenerated kind.”

In this article, I rely on the over 200 spontaneous letters as first-person narratives of uncanny experiences. What I want to do is to take seriously these experiences, generally called “supernatural”; by seriousness I mean that I don’t make evaluations of their truth or whether they are valid for the experiencer, part of their reality. To do research like this seemed to be, already from the start, a contradiction in terms. The concepts available for Unheimlich in scientific research, such as ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’, are already loaded with Western cultural assumptions of what is considered as natural or normal.

The letters we received consist mainly of narratives, in which the informants describe their experiences in more or less detailed, almost in testimonial manner. How to convince the listener, a close one or an authority? Many of the uncanny experiences are described as multisensorial, lonely feelings. Seeing inexplicable things seem to be the most common way to sense uncanniness.[9]

Ethics, Uncanny and Human Mind

As related to the discussions of epistemological and ontological dimensions of kumma in the studies of cultures, the problem of ethics has not a proper space. By saying so, I mean that what is merely unthematized is how strongly one’s ethical position on the value of narratives of human existence is influenced by the ontological assumptions concerning corporeality and by the evidential assumptions of what is real and what is true, as presented in social sciences and the humanities. In the following we discuss this in relation to three questions: 1) the ethical position of the experiencer as a writer of the uncanny, 2) that of the receiver and the audience, and finally 3) what the ontological assumptions mean for one’s possibilities for good life.

People who wrote to us about their experiences mention that they have not frequently shared the experience with others. This has been noted in earlier research (e.g. Hufford 1982; Virtanen 1977). The reason mentioned as to why they rarely told anyone was to avoid stigmatization or ostracism. Also, the feeling of not being understood in the case of intense and embarrassing experience could be painful. Some told that they had encountered authorities in care or the church with derogatory or pejorative attitudes. Many writers started their letters by asking for help from us as researchers, after having recurrently been disappointed with the encounters with other social institutions.

I have had a deep feeling of being different and not understood. I have been judged because of my spirituality and because I see and experience more than others. Nowadays I hide this side of myself from all but those adept in these issues. If I want to manage in working life well enough to earn a normal income, I cannot risk being labelled as a nutcase. (Laura MT71/1) [10]

However, what they wanted to write about, along with the descriptions of what happened to them, was a self-reflexive and convincing story of a responsible life. They made a lot of effort describing how and in which ways they tried to make sense of the uncanny experiences. Many books were read, many interpretative ways applied. Some writers shaped their own theories of the essence and the causes of the uncanny. What is ethically important for us is the deep discrepancy and asymmetry of ontological assumptions between the writer and the receiver. This leads to our first point, that of the writer as an actor. The testimonial style of the most letters was slightly astonishing. The experiences were described in a highly detailed way, and the careful descriptions reminded of court cases. Folklorist Ulla-Maija Peltonen (2003) describes something similar in her research on the narratives of the widows whose men, having fought on the Reds’ side, had disappeared during the Finnish Civil War. The women made desperate attempts to convince state officials of their men’s extinction, as the whole burden of proof was put on them. How to convince others about disappearance, the invisible and non-existing? Testimonies of this kind comprise certain sorts of speech acts belonging to the category of desperate evidence providing. They illuminate the lacking evidence in the meaning of not being able to communicate the experience in a proper way (Coady 1992). Though research on testimony has been rich in history, especially among court cases and war victims, and more recently among refugees and asylum seekers, the bulk of literature originates from the studies of the narratives of the Holocaust survivors. Philosopher Martin Kusch (n.d.) describes the survivors’ modes of creating evidence with two terms: linguistic despair and multitude of approaches. Linguistic despair is expressed by many narrators when trying to put their experiences into words in the situation where the listener does not share the experience, and where “socio-moral certainties have been destroyed using language presuppositions that these very certainties are in place” (ibid., 34). Also in the letters we received, the distinction between the world of the writer and the reader is present. The writers know that the readers do not share their world of experience and that they probably are unable to provide the kind of evidence that the state officials – including us as researchers – want, evidence that is based on visual and quantitative criteria (Engelke 2008). This evidence could consist of as detailed as possible written description of what the ungraspable was about, in all its “unsayablity”. Those they aim to convince are mostly health care personnel, notably medical and psychiatric doctors and nurses, and insurance professionals, as well as researchers. We examine the negotiations these groups undertake with state officials and how they try to make sense of their lives, thereby also addressing their needs. In our study, which compares the similarities and differences of the type of evidence presented, we distinguish between the perspectives of “evidence for”, in the context of power hierarchies, and “evidence of” the truth of certain experiences (Csordas 2004).

The testimonial stories show that at the level of the state evidence relies on the model of natural sciences where the ideal is provided by evidence-based medicine (Derkatch 2016; Knorr-Cetina 1981). Therefore, the state authorities refuse to acknowledge any other evidentiary model, which is well known by interlocutors, and consequently EBM gives a special framing for all encounters with the state, even if their narrations of personal and collective experiences of the invisible we have produced with our research collaborators are different.

The ethical dimension is quite concrete and readable: the aim of the style of the narratives is to attempt to construct evidence of the uncanny linguistically, to reach a shared understanding and to convince the receiver “in the absence of visual evidence” demanded in a situation where the ontological assumptions about what is real and what true are contested.

However, other kinds of experiences are written about. A woman tells about what is required for a good reception: an intersubjective realm with more or less “pre-understanding”:

I have strived to speak about my experiences, because I feel this is a part of life (at least of my life). My husband believes this has all happened, but he does not share my interpretation about “my guardian angels”. My children say “now Mom starts again…”. Acquaintances and less familiar people note: “If someone else had told me this, I would not believe it, but when you say it, I do believe.” As these things are not spoken about, the few who do speak are mainly considered crazy. (Maija MT13/2)

The ethical discrepancy is, however, not solely textual. Stigmatization can be a social consequence that effects one’s social life, meaning social control that aims at excluding someone defined as deviant from the society (Goffman 1963). Several studies have shown that in addition to social exclusion, the stigma of mental illness may lead to discrimination in working life and services, as well as to mocking and vandalism, which also target the person’s family. The logic of stigma is the process of self-stigmatization, spoiled identity, as the sociologist Goffman (ibid.) defines it; i.e. due to stigmatizing social interaction the person starts to believe her condition is shameful and that her prospects are non-existent. Consequently, stigmatization can be a more severe obstacle to one’s social functions than the deviant mental condition itself.


What is deviant is a cultural and political question: different cultures have different views on deviance and different ways to evaluate it. This is what anthropological studies repeat. In the discussions about extraordinary phenomena, which the sociologist Jeremy Northcote calls “the paranormal debate”, the opponents are generally portrayed as demonic others who threaten the right order and morals. Strongly related to values and power, these disputes are political in nature, and make stigmatization a political action. (Northcote 2007) In the case of kumma experiences, stigma usually refers either to mental illness or to the corruption of reason and “the right and proper ontological views” of western society. The ungraspable is profoundly about the ethical dimensions of the ontological assumptions.

The writers often described kumma as an unexpected, often extraordinary, uncontrolled and uncanny disruption in their everyday life and of action and practices in the midst of other people, at work and at home. They could be descriptions of relationships or of social bonds with family members, relatives, loved ones, living or the dead.The experiences contained moral themes such as responsibility, suffering, rights, and the good life but they also caused moral emotions such as shame, guilt, compassion or hate. They contained socially relevant evaluations of the writer’s life situation and ways of seeing the relationship between the world and themselves. There are certainly experiences of kumma, which are signs of deviance and mental illness, but, however, also kumma-experiences, which do not fit the psychiatric models of mental (un)health. That so many of them do, is a challenge to the epistemological thinking of professional modernity.

Moral philosophers, notably Charles Taylor (2008), stress that good life is about one’s ability to make sense of one’ s life as a meaningful continuum for which one can feel responsible. This is a kind of a generally shared ground of ethics, agreed upon concerning one’s value and humanness. I have argued in this paper that the current discussion around kumma does not take properly into account the ethical at least on two levels. One reason behind this is the narrowness of the notion of the bounded mind, which juxtaposes the limits of the mind with the limits of individuality. Putting the mind into the intersubjective and sensuous realm with social relationships, actors and contingencies makes the ethical a necessary dimension in addition to taking up the epistemological and ontological questions of the human mind. The other ethical dimension I have brought to attention is about one’s possibilities for valuable narratives about one’s life, about ways of being non-human, human and good life. This very core of ethics is influenced by the ontological assumptions concerning what is real and what is true and how the embodied mind is able to capture the ungraspable.

The interpretations of kumma in scientific studies differ deeply from those in the arts and aesthetic experience. Outside the arts,[11] peoples’ first-person narratives and their own contribution as specialists about their own experiences have been scanty or almost non-existent. They have merely contributed to what Foucault (2003) calls “subjugated knowledge”, meaning knowledge that does not have access to history. Scientific work has merely produced interpretations about people’s beliefs of the uncanny or their diseased mind. It is precisely this kind of scientific work that makes a phenomenon of a wide human experience neither real nor true.

At the beginning, I asked about the ways in which kumma is made a research object for the studies of cultures, and about the related vicissitudes. Kumma challenges the ways in which such basic concepts as time, space – and science – are defined.

During the CARPA conference discussion, we were asked to clarify how and in which ways our installation was an artwork and if we used for instrumental aims solely? I think that the question and how to answer it points to the core issue in the encounter between the arts, artistic and scientific research. Thinking epistemologically, it would mean something that Bakhtin (1984) defines as a threshold in spatial, temporal and embodied meaning. The threshold is something where the ordinary, comfortably habitable, well-arranged and stable, “leaps over” all that is, all that is far from the threshold – or crisis.

We don’t quite yet know what is becoming apparent.

… the threshold (…) takes on the meaning of a “point” where crisis, radical change, an unexpected turn of fate takes place, where decisions are made, where the forbidden line is overstepped, where one is renewed or perishes. (Bakhtin 1984, 169)


My enthusiastic gratitude goes to the working group comprised of artists and scientists, which became a research project ‘The Body and Other’, by Leena Rouhiainen, Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, Irene Kajo, Teemu Päivinen, Riku Saastamoinen and Sami Santanen, funded by THe Kone foundation 2018–2020.


1) Freud 1919. For a comprehensive discussion, see Royle 2003.

2) Mind and the Other, funded by the Academy of Finland (266573). This work was also undertaken as part of ArtsEqual Research Initiative and it was supported by the Academy of Finland’s Strategic Research Council under Grant 293199/2015.

3) The installation Connecting Phone Booth and this paper is based on collaboration with Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, Irene Kajo, Teemu Päivinen, Leena Rouhiainen and Riku Saastamoinen.

4) The participants were recruited by Moniääniset (The Voice Hearers), a society for people who hear voices without a visible source. Before the installation, the participating voice hearers were informed about our aims. They all gave their consent to use the content of the calls for the purposes of the installation.

5) See Dein (2012, 62) for an overview of studies done in USA and in several European countries. According to these studies, the prevalence of paranormal experiences is widespread in the general population.

6) ‘Sensory override’ is a term for uncanny used by Luhrmann. For her it includes “those odd moments when you hear voice when you are alone, or you see something that isn’t there – not in a-table-and-chairs kind of way – or when you feel or taste or smell the immaterial” (Luhrmann 2011, 73–74; see also Blackman 2012).

7) The World Values 2005 research has shown that compared with any other country, Finns have a half-hearted attitude to spiritual matters: positive and negative attitudes are seldom extreme (Ketola, Kääriäinen & Niemelä 2007a, 49). Religion is present as mediated by the Lutheran state church, but personal religious or spiritual belief is considered a private issue, which is not to be negotiated with others (Ketola, Kääriäinen & Niemelä 2007b, 60). The public discourse is unwelcoming towards spiritual matters and especially towards uncanny experiences that are not supported by any legitimate institution but suggest alternative interpretations of reality. By public discourse we mean newspapers, current affairs and factual discussions in traditional media, but also the public parts of social media. If we compare these with magazines and tabloids of the English-speaking world, in which paranormal topics have been flourishing (e.g. Hill 2010, 1), the Finnish media has been more reserved. Furthermore, it seems that the public also expects traditional media to ignore such topics. When an afternoon paper Ilta-Sanomat published an article about two specialists of the supernatural, Internet comments included a lot of negative feedback.

8) Our research project received several spontaneous phone calls and 250 letters and emails from over 130 people. Some people have written to the project only once, whereas others have written multiple times – some even continuously. The length and depth of the letters varies greatly, ranging from a short note with a few sentences to a detailed description with dozens of pages. The majority of the letters were sent to the project during the first year, but the arrival of the letters has not stopped at any point. In fact, they still keep coming.

9) Mention of different forms of precognition, premonition and telepathy are common in the letters. The writers describe how they have sensed things already in advance. In addition, the writers often describe how they have been thinking of a certain person, when this person immediately either calls them via phone or walks past them on the street. These experiences are interpreted as evidence of the capacity to feel the future.

10) The project members have anonymized all the letters. Also the persons who called the phone booths are kept anonymous.

11) and in the religious and esoteric discourses.


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Marja-Liisa Honkasalo Research Leader at the Research Centre of Culture and Health, University of Turku (2015–today); Professor of Cultural Health, University of Turku (2011–2015); Professor in Medical Anthropology, University of Linköping, Sweden (2006–2011); Researcher, The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (2004–2006); Academy researcher, The Academy of Finland (1999–2004); Visiting Professor in Universita degli Studi di Roma, La Sapienza (2002–2003); University of Stanford (2016); Visiting scholar, University of Harvard (1996–1998).