The faculty at the Invisible Night School have extended a welcome invitation to converse with them on its Wednesday night (30 November 2022) livestream 6:00 p.m EST. The conversation will be viewable on the Invisible Night School’s YouTube channel following. Tune in then or later for what promises to be a polyvalent, polydimensional yack!
Pretty much from the start, an essential distinction here at the Skunkworks, and one given to increasingly acute reflection, has been that between the being and the meaning of the UFO phenomenon, that is, between a concern with identifying and explaining the nature or cause of UFOs (answering the question, “What are they?”) on the one hand and an exploration of the infinite stories about UFOs in various media, including the original sighting reports themselves, and their meaning for culture and society at large on the other. The earliest articulation of our position on the question was the post “Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO”. Persistent if impertinent prodding from Rich Reynolds necessitated further clarification with “On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”. And, most recently, positions taken by Jeffrey Kripal and Hussein Ali Agrama and trenchant criticisms levelled by Mike Cifone inspired “’The theme has vista’: the question of UFO reality and the Myth of Things seen in the Sky” and “Getting to a root of the matter: a ‘radical’ ‘theory’ of the UFO Phenomenon if not the UFO-in-itself”.
I’ve been the first to admit that too rigidly-drawn a distinction is de jure subject to deconstruction in the rigorous sense. I have, at the same time, argued that textuality determines the phenomenon as a condition of possibility for its being experienced at all, (and text is, in the restricted sense, after all, the object of hermeneutics par excellence). But this argument is neither here nor there in this regard, for what’s at stake is whether and, if so, to what extent and by what warrant the question of the cause of the experience can be “bracketed” from its textual, artefactual effects (sighting reports and subsequent articles, books, documentaries and films, nonfictional and fictional, etc.). Such bracketing (even if practiced in his own way by Jacques Vallée in one study) arguably precisely by its foregoing the question answers the question of the being of the phenomenon—in the negative, whether tactfully, in not stating so outright, or in treating the question, whether methodologically or in fact, as being of no account. Kripal and Agrama have found such bracketing “a cop out” to avoid the challenge to official ontology apparently posed by the phenomenon.
Into this dispute drops a new book, Andy Bruno’s Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy. Ethan Pollock in his recent review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement makes clear its pertinence to the problem addressed here:
In Tunguska: A Siberian mystery and its environmental legacy, Andy Bruno explores what happened [after the event] with remarkable drive, energy and what he calls ‘strategic agnosticism’: a skilful weaving together of Russian and Soviet history, modern science and environmental studies that gives no approach the upper hand. Other scholars have written about Tunguska from various perspectives, but almost always in order to try to explain what happened that day in 1908. Bruno focuses instead on how specific genres of storytelling and scientific argumentation created and sustained popular and professional curiosity over the ensuing century. (my emphasis)
Here, we have an example of a study that manages unproblematically to bracket an undoubtedly real event (whose ontological status contrasts sharply with that much more dubitable one of UAP) from its textual wake, those stories and arguments “created and sustained [by] popular and professional curiosity over the ensuing century.”
Bruno’s work is especially relevant, as it addresses directly the half-humorous line of attack on bracketing launched by Kripal and Agrama, who compare bracketing the question of the being of the phenomenon from its meaning as is customary in the social sciences to adopting the same approach with regards to radiation. On the one hand, the analogy is questionable if not specious, given the marked difference in ontological status between radiation and UAP; on the other, however, Bruno’s study demonstrates both the ease and promise of shifting perspective from engaging in the attempt to resolve the controversies about the nature of even an undoubtedly real event and its cultural shock waves.
But the whole matter admits of a finer-grained analysis. In our classic study of the Raëlian Movement, Susan Palmer and I, like good religious studies scholars, bracket the question of whether Claude Vorilhon in fact experienced what he claims to have; rather we expose the ideological underpinnings of the Message to account for the success of Vorilhon’s New Religious Movement. In the strictly poetic work one can find here (the work toward the epic Orthoteny), the “reality” of the UFO is as irrelevant as that of the gods of Homer and Hesiod to their respective poems or that of the saints and angels in Dante’s Commedia to his. In the more cultural critical essays that make up most of the posts here at the Skunkworks, the problem is more complex. In some regards, the focus is precisely and exclusively on what I’ve termed here “cultural shockwaves” along the lines pursued by Bruno, UFO books, movies, and other media and the thinking that goes into and on around them. Here, I read (i.e., attend hemeneutically) to “the UFO mythology”, which, as a mythology, is grasped in the same way a reader approaches the Iliad and Odyssey, the Theogeny, or the Commedia. In these instances it might be argued that I adopt a tacit acceptance of some version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis, for, as I ponder in a more recent, more cautious post: “the significance of what [I call] ‘the UFO mythology’ will have a different significance, culturally (won’t it?) if the root ’cause’ is itself not merely ‘subjective’ (misperceptions or deceptions on the part of the witness, as per the Psychosocial Hypothesis) but ‘objective’ (whatever the nature of that objectivity might finally be).” In this latter regard, it seems to me, Bruno’s work legitimates, to a point (always relative to the particular questions motivating the research), bracketing the question of the reality (if not the nature) of the phenomenon from its meaning effects. So, regardless of whether there is a physically real, genuine mystery to UAP, the work here and in sociology departments can proceed for the time being in good conscience—at least until Disclosure (and even then!).
Hot on the heels of my shrugging my shoulders about there being little new in the ufological sphere, I recieved notice that a post at a new website The Invisible Night School had linked to an early post of mine at Skunkworks.
The site, the brainchild of Luis Cayetano, Nick Coffin-Callis, Leah Prime, Campbell Moreira, and Sparks, describes itself as follows:
The Invisible Night School is a consortium of lay-researchers and scholars analytically exploring UFOs and UAPs, high strangeness, and the cultural and social implications of the phenomenon.
The Invisible Night School (aka #TINS) is a cross-platform, multi-media initiative: we regularly host Twitter Spaces for informal salon-style discussion, livestreams on YouTube with special guests, and “blackboard” sessions for individual- and small-group projects.
Sure to disappoint those whose sole concern is solving the UFO Mystery, The Invisible Night School at least piques my interest, maybe yours, too. Checkitout.
Regular visitors here may have been puzzled or concerned about this site’s recent silence. Matters on the domestic and poetic fronts have been more pressing of late, and the recent unfolding of the myth of things seen in the sky hasn’t been very inspiring. Luis Elizondo, Chris Mellon, & Co. continue to embarass themselves with their wince-inducing ignorance of UFO history, and the recent kerfuffle around the Calvine photograph raises the same old dust, nor does Jeffrey Kripal’s newest book touch any nerves of mine (though that may change on closer scrutiny…).
But, then, as chance would have it, a perennially-irritating confusion comes again into view. Greg Bishop, the admin for the Radio Misterioso FB page, shared an article from The Guardian via George Knapp, “Talking to whales: can AI bridge the chasm between our consciousness and other animals?”, with the comment “If this group is successful in achieving communication with whales, it may be wonderful, or frightening, or both. It may also teach us how to look for signatures of nonhuman life by using insights to an alien species that shares the same planet with us.”
It’s that second sentence that caught my attention. At first, even the grammar had me flummoxed. I take Bishop to mean that the work of the groups mentioned in The Guardian article “may also teach us how to look for signatures of nonhuman life by applying its insights to an alien species that shares the same planet with us.” And there’s the rub: the thinking seemingly at work here about “nonhuman life” and that “alien species that shares the same planet with us.”
That alien species is, I surmise (given George Knapp’s being in on the conversation), the one that pilots what today are termed Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). These are almost invariably humanoid, not just morphologically, but, to some extent, culturally (and arguably socially), being technological, even if that technology transcends our present understanding. Even if UAP and alien-encounter events are staged (a la Vallée), that staging is still imagined to be carried out technologically. My point here is that this putative alien species (Mac Tonnies’ Crytpoterrestrials?) is only marginally nonhuman. Not only its form but its “form of life” (a la Wittgenstein: ‘a background common to humankind, “shared human behavior” which is “the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language”’) are human, all-too-human.
One might justifiably ask by what warrant I venture to propose that these crypoterrestials might share a background of shared behaviour, a form of life close enough to that of some Homo Sapiens that would underwrite our more readily understanding these Others than those other, exoteric nonhuman species with which we cohabit the earth. What’s at work I argue in imagining that these terrestrial, alien species are both radically Other and technological is a conceptualization of technology that abstracts it from the social conditions of its actual coming-to-be. This impoverished notion of technology enables both its conflation with tool-use (so that even sharpened stones are “technology”) and its inflation to a kind of telos (essential goal) of intelligence that inspires fantasies about nonhuman, extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations, a hobby-horse (if not a bugbear) here at the Skunkworks. As I have explained (however cursorily) in an earlier post: “science and technology…are woven from the fabric of the society within which they appear and operate; they are cultural phenomena through and through.” Technology, thought concretely, is bound up with a form of life, such that, any other parahuman, technological species would already be close enough to technological Homo Sapiens that attempting to understand them would be more akin to that which occurs between different human groups than that between humans and other animals.
What’s at stake in these reflections is not so much the reality of these crypoterrestrial Others (attentive readers will have noticed nothing I have written denies outright their possible being) but how we understand and relate to those unquestionably real, nonhuman Others with whom we cohabit the earth. In seeing the promise for communicating with imagined creatures who mirror us in research into interspecies communication one oversells the strangeness of these putative Others and undersells the undeniable Otherness of really-existing animal (and plant) life. That more concerned parties are not struck by how much more alien actually-existing nonhuman life forms on earth are, compared to those “alien” beings that inhabit the ufological universe increasingly puzzles and saddens me. The fascination with crypto- or extraterrestrials betrays a narcissistic longing to encounter some version of ourselves instead of the unquestionable Otherness of our plant and animal kin whose profound difference provides a broader and deeper insight into the abyssal mystery of our creature-being.
In a recent thread over at the UFO Updates Facebook page unwinding under a notice of Jacques Vallée’s and James Fox’s having recently appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast, I chimed in in harmony with one commenter who drew attention to the grave flaws with Vallée’s and Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky, adding Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity: The Best Kept Secret was as bad if not worse. Another commenter took exception, remarking: “Why build up when it’s so much easier to tear down?”
I found this comment discomfortingly unfair. Anyone who takes the time to read what I have written about Trinity in particular and Vallée’s work in general will, if they read attentively and with a modicum of understanding, percieve I am at all points charitable, at all points straining to present Vallée’s views as accurately and fairly as I can and, only once I have presented them as I understand them and as strongly as I can, do I then venture to either remark their implications or flaws in reasoning. I challenge anyone interested to find passages here at Skunkworks where I depart from this practice and to leave a comment specific to the substance of my discourse.
Some readers here have conflated criticism with critique, destructiveness with Destruktion (deconstruction). Criticism, at its most excessive, descends to fault-finding, and one unconcerned with grasping the criticized’s position accurately or at its most persuasive. Debunkery is an example of this kind of criticism, an approach I have defended, for example, Vallée’s writing against. Nevertheless, when Vallée’s writing has been less than accurate, I have criticized it on those grounds, but far more respectfully than others. But much more often what I engage in here at the Skunkworks is critique: the probing of the presuppositions and implications of an author’s position. A most recent example of the latter is my essaying a particular blind spot in Vallée’s Control System Hypthesis, especially its implications when read in combination with some passages from Passport to Magonia. Who sees this argument as merely destructive or dismissive fails to either grasp the argument or take it seriously.
And if there is anything at work here it’s my taking the authors I engage—Jacques Vallée, Diane Pasulka/Heath, Jeffrey Kripal, and George Hansen, among others (and, yes, even Avi Loeb…)—seriously. I challenge my critics, anyone who finds the thinking here at Skunkworks merely destructive, facilely dismissive, to find any other reader of these authors’ works as scrupulous or charitable. As I have observed, in some circles these authors can do no wrong; in others, no right. Neither stance does their conjectures, thinking, and labours justice. Only a painstaking, vigilant reading that is dialectical, i.e., that both discerns and uncovers the truth of their positions while at the same time the conditions, limits, and troubling implications of that truth can be said to do their work justice, to take it seriously.
As I responded to the commenter whose remark spurred this post: it’s not easy to tear down—something solidly built. Of course, such wanton demolition is not what we’re up to here at these Skunkworks…
Among those who should know better, namely those engaged in the attempt to scientifically investigate UFOs or UAP, the idea that what they study represents spaceships from some extraterrestrial civilization is all too common. Regardless of whether this Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) turns out to be true or not, its central assumption, that there exist extraterrestrial civilizations of intelligent, technologically-advanced beings (whether organic or artifactual), is ideological, presupposing as natural the cultural formation of but one kind of society on earth, one which, should it continue on the way it has the past four centuries or so, threatens to perform a practical argumentum ad absurdum, demonstrating its falsity by bringing about its own catastrophic collapse and perhaps the extinction of Homo Sapiens in the bargain.
I have essayed the idea that this central presupposition is an unconcious Platonism, appearing to believe that essence precedes existence, that there is some inherent teleology in life that drives or leads it to “intelligence”, tool use and technology, and that technology, too, is governed by some essence that shapes and guides it along a more or less universal vector of progress, so that it is possible to speak intelligibly about civilizations’ being more or less “advanced”. One would have hoped it would have been enough to point out that this is precisely the view of Maitreya Raël whose Elohim are “25,000 years in advance” of contemporary terrestrial technology, but no such luck.
Putting aside the classical philosophical question as to why there is something rather than nothing, we have yet to determine how life appeared on earth and how this life came to be conscious (indeed, how consciousness might be said to evolve—an aspect of the “hard problem of consciousness“). Of course, it’s not giving too much away to grant that there is in fact sentient life of earth; it came to be and evolved to this point. “Evolved” is the key term here; however much we might observe examples of convergence and take into account recent research that seems to suggest a certain predictability to evolution, I wager your garden variety evolutionary biologist will maintain that evolution is a precariously aleatoric process.
If evolution is a pack of wild cards, how much more so is cultural change (n.b., not “development” let alone “progress”…)? The conjectures of sociobiologists notwithstanding, culture and the story of its change over time, history, argues not that essence precedes existence (beings aim at fulfilling some predetermined form or end) but that existence precedes essence. As Hegel, and, lately, Žižek, have observed: the apparent necessity of history (“It had to turn out that way!”) is a function of retrospection, not undetermined, among other things, by even the narratological rhetoric of articulating that retrospection, historiography; as history unfolds it is chaotic, aleatory.
Yet, for some reason, those given to entertaining the ETH seem to imagine that life gives rise to “intelligence”, which, of itself, gives rise to tool-use, of which technology is only an elaboration. However, only a slightly more fine-grained scrutiny reveals that technology as we know it is bound up with the natural sciences. The sciences in turn are grounded not only on observation but rely on mathematics, arithmetic and geometry, to express those relations and laws observation and experiment discover. But what of mathematics? In the case of both “pure” mathematics and geometry, praxis preceded theory. Arithmetic was first developed for use in taxation, trade, and astronomy (used, in turn, in the creation of calendars); likewise, geometry is developed to facilitate surveying, engineering, and, again, astronomy. It’s Pythagoras and Euclid, at least in the Mediterranean, who abstract pure mathematics from this practical know-how.
The way pure mathematics abstracts from the praxes of bureaucratic government, i.e. those of the social formation of its day, underlines that science is always a social endeavour, made possible (determined) by a social and cultural mileu always local in space and time. For example, arithmetic is a special instance of writing, a “technology” developed to facilitate trade (e.g., to keep inventories), a behaviour in turn made possible only due to surpluses the product of agricultural society and the division of labour that makes it possible, a society, in turn, whose condition of possibility most generally was the relatively stable, temperate climate of the Holocene, which, in turn was itself determined by all the features of earth’s geology and even its relation to the sun that have allowed life to appear and thrive on the planet so far.
A similar case can be made for the advent of Newtonian physics and the knowing subject of the natural sciences. The social matrix for Newton is no longer the polis of Pythagoras and Euclid but capitalism and the commodity form. It was Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) that brought my attention to the work of Alfred Sohn-Retel, especially his Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, who makes the case. As Žižek so ably summarizes:
…The apparatus of categories presupposed, implied by the scientific procedure (that, of course, of the Newtonian science of nature), the network of notions by means of which it seizes nature, is already present in the social effectivity, already at work in the act of commodity exchange. Before thought could arrive at pure abstraction, the abstraction was already at work in the social effectivity of the market….
Before thought could arrive at the idea of a purely quantitative determination, a sine qua non of the modern science of nature, pure quantity was already at work in money, that commodity which renders possible the commensurability of the value of all other commodities notwithstanding their particular qualitative determination. Before physics could articulate the notion of a purely abstract movement going on in a geometric space, independently of all qualitative determinations of the moving objects, the social act of exchange had already realized the ‘pure’, abstract movement which leaves totally intact the concrete-sensual properties of the object caught in movement: the transference of property. And Sohn-Rethel demonstrated the same about the relationship of substance and its accidents, about the notion of causality operative in Newtonian science—in short, about the whole network of categories of pure reason. (10-11)
Regardless if one is persuaded by Sohn-Rethel’s argument, the point is that science and technology, including the ways they feed into each other, are woven from the fabric of the society within which they appear and operate; they are cultural phenomena through and through. As such, they cannot be subsumed under universal, natural laws that would enable us to predict their appearance and development under any other circumstances, on or off the earth. The ETH grows from a rootless abstraction (about science and technology), unaware of the profound, contingent determinations of our own situation, how one civilization on earth arrived at its present moment, a moment that scrupulous examination suggests is singular.
My last post argues that the UFO phenomenon, including the Unidentified Flying Object itself, is given to us as a text. This position segues nicely into (at least) Jacques Vallée’s thinking in at least two respects. Since coming to know Jeffrey Kripal, Vallée has become interested in Kripal’s approach to the paranormal that grasps it as hermeneutical (hermeneutics, the discipline or art of interpretation), or so Kripal relates in his Authors of the Impossible (2010). Moreover, Vallée himself, beginning with The Invisible College (1975), has speculated that UFO events are not what they seem but are, rather, if not attempted communications exactly, staged dramas intended to influence human culture if not “consciousness”. I have reflected on the implications of this proposal here a number of times, most recently, here.
A prompt to pursue this matter further presented itself a while back. I came across the meme that serves as this post’s featured image when it was generously shared as a comment on the announcement of a recent Fireside Chat podcast. I’d read Vallée’s valuable and, in a sense, canonical paper mentioned in the meme a number of times, but had forgotten the addenda the meme cites. To venture a “doubling” of Vallée’s text (to paraphrase it): some Other (a terrestrial nonhuman intelligence, either another species (?) or the planet itself (Gaia), or the Jungian Collective Unconscious) by means of symbolically-charged interventions (variously ufological or more recognizably religious, e.g., visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary) is either “training us to a new kind of [unspecified] behaviour” or “projecting…the imagery which is necessary for our own long-term survival beyond the unprecedented crisis of the Twentieth century.”
Vallée’s Control System Hypothesis has recently come under what to me seems relatively cogent criticism. Nevertheless, any considerations as to the meaning or meaningfulness of the phenomenon is welcome here. That being said, Vallée’s Others who address us range from the speculative to the not-so-hard science fictional: Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Gaia, and Strieber’s visitors (or Tonnies’ Cryptoterrestrials?). Rather than probe these posited sources for the phenomenon’s communication or manipulation, thereby avoiding having to reflect on the hermeneutics let alone semiotics of their respective communications, I’d like to, all too quickly, consider Vallée’s variants from the perspective of their social effects.
Passport to Magonia (1969) presents a telling narrative. In Chapter Five, Vallée relates the story of Singing Eagle / Juan Diego, who in 1531 encountered what appeared to be a supernatural “young Mexican girl” who came to be known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is said to have performed both a miraculous healing and the no less miraculous creation of the holy relic of a tilma adorned with a representation of the Lady herself. Aside from “the magnificent symbolism” of the story Vallée hones in on is the fact that “[i]n the six years that followed the incident, over eight million Indians were baptized.” In Chapter Seven of The Invisible College Vallée presents the story of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who, too, after (as Smith claims) a number of visionary experiences, he is given a supernatural artifact, a chest of gold plates upon which, written in a strange language, is the text of what will become The Book of Mormon. This newest testament, among much else, states, “the Indians are the remnant of an Israelite tribe…” The social effects of both these (in Vallée’s view) symbolic interventions by some Other are well-known—and utterly unremarked in either book. The vision and attendant stories around the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe served to colonize the indigenous population, supplanting its spirituality with Roman Catholicism. In a similar fashion, Smith’s revelation effaces the unique difference of the First Nations of Turtle Island, ideologically smoothing the way for the “settlement” of the Utah Basin by the Mormons under the racist Brigham Young, dispossessing an estimated population of 20,000 Indigenous inhabitants.With respect to these two stories and their effects, Vallée’s Control System seems on the side of settler colonialism…
What of Vallée’s second variant, that in the UFO, at least, the Collective Unconscious is “projecting…the imagery which is necessary for our own long-term survival beyond the unprecedented crisis of the Twentieth century”? The imagery and its effects are ambivalent in this regard at best. Jung himself posits that the circularity of the flying saucer is an archetypical mandala, an image of wholeness and unity, that psychologically compensated for the anxiety brought about by a world split into two, murderously-adversarial camps. However, however dramatic, such a visionary intervention is hardly an answer to the mortal problem it emotionally assuages. Indeed, it fits almost perfectly one definition of ideology: an imaginary solution to a real problem. But more disturbingly are the ideological implications of the UFO mythology as it by and large came to be developed since 1947. The flying saucers were taken to be extraterrestrial spaceships possessed of a technology vastly in advance of our own. As such, the flying saucer functions, again, ideologically, reifying—making seem natural and universal—the reigning character of the so-called First World. If the growing menace of climate change and the ecological crisis are anything to go by, the imagery of the UFO mythology seems at odds with our long-term survival, entrenching a kind of techno-optimism that serves not so much to suggest a way beyond the urgent environmental crises of the moment as to stabilize the present social order enriching Silicon Valley and capitalists such as Elon Musk.
Admittedly, the interpretation of those interventions Vallée’s work presents is far from so cut-and-dried. The matter demands difficult work on presenting the mythology in its wild variety, and reflecting long and hard on the semiotics and hermeneutics proper and sufficient to this mythology considered as a communication or intervention from or by a nonhuman other. That being said, anyone undertaking this task needs muster an ideologically-sensitive vigilance to the ways the myth works and more importantly for whom regardless of its ultimate source.
The title of this post takes its cue from a famous—and notoriously misconstrued—sentence in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Even the translator must offer two versions (“There is nothing outside of the text”, “there is no outside-text”) neither of which quite successfully communicate the sense of the French original, which is as much determined as complicated (as is the wont of Derrida’s style) by its context, namely the sentences that precede it:
Yet if reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content would take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above; as regards the absence of the referent or the transcendal signifier. There is nothing outside of the text…. (158)
It is not my intent to double this excerpt of Derrida’s text in the form of a commentary or exegesis, but to place it here, partially in its context, as evidence of its complexity and to suggest that the use I propose to make of it, the work I want to put it to, is likewise not so simple (and hence not so simply dismissed).
In my previous post I distinguished the UFO mythology (all that is said or written about the UFO, including artworks) from the Unidentified Flying Object itself, that cause of the stimulus of the experience that is consequently reported, a distinction that invokes that common sense one between word and thing, between, what Derrida terms above, text and referent. I know some (and here I use the logical sense of ‘some’, one of a set or all but one of a set…) would set aside all that is said about the object all the better to seize the object itself, to grasp the referent apart from, i.e., outside, the text (i.e., and this is key, independent of textuality). If we cut to the quick, turning our back on all that “talk”—the UFO books, articles, blogs, movies, television, etc.—and attend to those texts nearest the experience of the object they are about, namely the witness report, how close to the object can we get? Can we get outside of the text, free of textuality?
On the one hand, it is not unwarranted to begin with the witness report. As is well-known in ufological circles, it was in the opening pages of Jacques Vallée’s first book, Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965), that an important first principle was laid down: “The phenomenon under study is not the UFO, which is not reproducible at will in the laboratory, but the report written by the witness” (vii). Of course, one wants to interject here that the story is not so simple: the witness report is perhaps more often than not dictated by the witness to an investigator, an investigator who themself is no mere passive recording instrument, but often asking questions, guiding or directing the witness’ report, moreover, at times, in their doubling of the text of the witness’ story—in their recording of it, in their “taking it down”—, condensing, extrapolating, paraphrasing, etc. There would have been no “flying saucer flap” if a journalist listening to Kenneth Arnold’s “witness report” hadn’t spontaneously coined the expression “flying saucer” to catch and communicate more vividly than Arnolds’ own words an element of his witness testimony. On the other hand, of course, less patient readers will already have accused me of loading the dice, starting with an instance of text: what’s important is the object, the cause of the stimulus that gave rise to the report, what the report refers to….
So, if we approach that object yet closer, leaving behind the words of the witness report, whether more or less those of the witness or not, to the experience of the object, do we get “outside the text”, free of textuality? The typical experience is of an anomalous object, something unrecognizable. I make what might seem a pointlessly obvious claim here; however, not all witness reports are of anomalous objects: “I saw a Pleiadian beamship silently hovering over the valley,” or “a Bob Lazar ‘sports model’ zipped straight up and out of sight.” Such reports are of, as it were, recognizable objects; indeed, much the same could be said for any identification of a strange light or unusual flying object immediately as “a UFO” or “flying saucer” however much more general such an identification is. Where such sightings operate by seeing the object as an instance of a more general, existing category, the experience of an anomalous object demands the witness search for concepts to make sense of it; the anomalous object is not re-cognized but demands that it be cognized. Arnold’s experience is instructive: the sighting was an extended struggle to identify, then, failing that, to describe the objects observed. Are they experimental jet aircraft? The echelon moves like the tail of a kite. The craft move like a saucer skipped over water….The process to make sense of what is seen is characterized by questions, statements (guesses), comparisons, etc., i.e., instances of language. After the objects disappear, the witness, in dwelling on what was seen, in the continued effort to wrap their mind around it, frames the experience as a narrative: I was doing this, then I noticed that, then…, finally… The experience of an anomalous object, during and after, is, in its linguistic articulation, to turn a phrase, “textured.”
Indeed, one could go further: the object as an object is textured in this way or “textualized”. Following Kant, the object is first and foremost a synthesis—of shape, colour, motion, sound, etc. If we are persuaded by the thesis that thought depends on language (as argued, first, by Hamann and Herder) and that perception is formed by it (as in the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis), then the categories by which we make sense of the specific sensuous qualities of the object are given by language: the object was crescent-shaped, it appeared metallic, it was soundless, it gave off a sulphurous odour, etc. Even if one disagrees with this strain of thought, the object-as-synthesis is still textured: its characteristics are determinate (it is oval, not circular or triangular or…; it was unilluminated; it moved quickly not slowly, irregularly not smoothly,…) only because these determinations are themselves structured like a language (roughly, what Derrida above refers to as writing or text in general).
It is the failure to understand this insight that breeds so much confused misunderstanding. Derrida famously draws on the structural linguistics of Saussure, for whom the structure of language is constructed diacritically, i.e., on the basis of difference. No term in a language, no phoneme, grapheme, morpheme, etc. is what it is by being self-identical but by virtue of its being not any of all the other elements of the language system. This notion of a differential (diacritical) structure finds its original formulation in Spinoza: omnes determinatio est negatio: all determination is negation, a thesis with fateful consequences. It is in this sense that even if the empirical qualities of the object are not first supplied and organized by a natural language (American English, French, etc.), for them to be determinate at all they are so by dint of their being distinguished from what they are not. The object, even if uncategorizable, unrecognizable, anomalous is, in an important sense, a text, text being just such a weave of diacritically distinguished elements. There is nothing of the object apart from (outside) the text (in general), nothing consciousness can grasp.
The consequences of this line of thought are all the more grave when applied to any possible knowledge of the Unidentified Flying Object, for any knowledge worthy of the name will be articulate, determinate, i.e., textual. Those who want to or think they can get outside the text to get a hold of the object in itself fail to understand that such a reaching after knowledge (if that’s what it is) exceeds its grasp: outside the text there is no knowledge. Just like those who view the UFO as an object of gnosis, an object of mystical, ineffable experience, our ufological “realist” (who wants the thing not the word, the referent not the text, the unidentified flying object itself) must in the end agree with the final proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darübuer muss man schweigen; roughly, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Coming soon: “Rumour, myth, text—and metamaterials!”
In thinking about the relation between the UFO mythology (the countless stories about UFOs in whatever medium) and whatever prompts witness experiences and reports, the etymology of our word ‘theory’ struck me as offering some guidance. The first use of ‘theory’ in more-or-less our present sense is from the “1590s, ‘conception, mental scheme,’ from Late Latin theoria, from Greek theōria ‘contemplation, speculation; a looking at, viewing; a sight, show, spectacle, things looked at,’ from theōrein ‘to consider, speculate, look at,’ from theōros ‘spectator,’ from thea ‘a view’ (see theater) + horan ‘to see’.” It’s this latter sense of theōros, spectator, that opens a new view on the matter, for a theōros was not only a spectator in the theatre but, as Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us in his magnum opus Truth and Method, “theōros means someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival” (124). The city states of ancient Greece would send such delegations to their sister cities as representatives to that city’s religious observations and to participate in them as such.
If we adopt the perspective of such “theoreticians” and visit the city state of the UFO people, we’d find, among much else, that the scripture of this city state’s cult is composed of two kinds of texts, Testaments and Commentaries. The Testaments are the witness reports at various removes from the original words of the witness (think of Kenneth Arnold’s first words to the journalists, one of whose stories coined the term ‘flying saucers’, then all the subsequent retellings of his testimony). These Testaments have inspired a vast body of secondary literature, the Commentaries (which often include their own retellings), which each attempt their elucidation and interpretation of the Testaments. Both these genres have also inspired a body of art in almost every conceivable medium. On the one hand, because there is no authoritative orthodoxy, either doctrinal or institutional, the corpus of Testaments and Commentaries is continually growing, as is the museum of artworks they inspire. On the other, however, because anyone can testify, and some who have done so have demonstrably lied, for various reasons, and anyone can write a commentary, there is considerable dispute and sometimes no little acrimony among the populace invested in the city’s UFO cult, its elaboration and interpretation.
The theōros, however, whatever their personal predilections, is present merely to observe and participate in the ritual observances solely in their role as observer-participant. This is to say, they can study and appreciate the mind-boggling richness of the Testaments and Commentaries without needing to take any position regarding their respective truth or significance themselves other than to adopt the tactful respect demanded of the visiting outsider. It’s in this stance of the theōros that their connection to our present-day theoreticians—sociologists and folklorists, for example–comes into view. Such who study the UFO mythology, the “visionary rumour”, do so as a kind of visitor to this (at least methodologically) foreign (“outlandish”) community of belief.They can in good faith report on the various beliefs and their complications and even speculate (at least upon their return home) on their character and significance, complementing if not enriching the mythological and religious culture of their own city.
The prime virtue of this analogy-from-etymology is that it clarifies more realistically the relationship between the theōros and those they study, which is markedly not that which obtains between a subject and object, as does obtain in, e.g., the physicist studying elementary particles. The observer is at the same time a participant, just one whose role is more-or-less clearly demarcated. It is precisely for this reason Gadamer invokes the etymology of the word, for the relation of spectator (theōros) to what is observed is an engaged, interested—in a word, hermeneutic—one. The social sciences—sociology and ethnology and others—have come to recognize this hermeneutic dimension and to integrate it into their respective methodologies. And it is the being both foreign and involved, apart and embedded, of the theōros that captures at the same time the methodogical distance of the sociologist.
The argument, here, (if it can be called that) is good as far as it goes. There is no doubt that research of this kind can be carried out. I pointed out in an earlier post that, to move to the artistic sphere, Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a work of cinematic art entails no commitments on the part of the film maker to one or more positions concerning the transcinematic reality or nature of the phenomena that supply the material for the film’s plot. One is, therefore, on good ground, I argue, to posit that de facto the UFO mythology can be grasped as an object independently of having to take a position with regards to, to put it roughly, its “cause”.
However, at the same time—and this is the challenge posed by Kripal and Cifone—is it the case that de jure (in principle) sociological research if not artistic exploitation of the mythology does not entail if not demand such a position? Isn’t it the case that, e.g., the sociologist is a closet adherent of the Psychosocial Hypothesis, for, surely, the meaning if not the significance (to draw provisionally a not unproblematic distinction) of the matter will differ depending upon whether it is real or not. What I mean is that, in one regard, the meaning of what an Experiencer, for example, undergoes, will be the same regardless of whether the phenomenon is “real” or not, for that meaning is produced on this side of the phenomenon, that of the Experiencer themselves (a position taken by Vallée already in The Invisible College). However, taken at a societal level, the significance of what I’ve been calling here “the UFO mythology” will have a different significance, culturally (won’t it?) if the root “cause” is itself not merely “subjective” (misperceptions or deceptions on the part of the witness, as per the Psychosocial Hypothesis) but “objective” (whatever the nature of that objectivity might finally be). At this conceptual level, I remain undecided…
As for what is up at the Skunkworks (which some people persist in misapprehending), your author is more like a member of that visiting delegation who is back home a poet or philosopher. He observes the rites, hears the myths, discusses them with other attendees of the festival, and hies home with some scrolls of testimonies and commentaries under his arm. Retired to his country estate, he makes what he will of the word hoard he has returned with: his own recasting of the myths (the testimonies) and perhaps a commentary of his own, but one that hovers curiously between Wahrheit and Dichtung…
Luis Cayetano has again been kind enough to engage me in conversation and give me free reign to improvise further thoughts on a wide range of topics, consciousness, UFOs, technology, society, the Enlightenment, conspiracy theory, and so on and so forth.
It’s a long one, clocking in at just over two-and-a-half hours, and, despite my preparatory efforts, the sound quality of my end was not as clear as could be and should have been. Nevertheless, we were able to orbit, touch on, and dig into a number of interesting topics and questions, including how fictions become truths, the UFO-as-fetish, problems in interpreting the symbolic dimension of the phenomenon, among many others.
Thanks again to Luis Cayetano for producing the interview and its YouTube incarnation. You can hear it, here.
Today’s synchronicities prompt today’s offering.
First, The Guardian posted a review of Philip Ball’s forthcoming The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, from Animals to Aliens, which is concerned with expanding the concept of intelligence to include the animal and even plant, a project readers here will recognize. Especially remarkable is the review’s concluding passage:
…most of our fantasies about advanced alien intelligence suppose it to be like us but with better tech. That’s not just a sci-fi trope; the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence typically assumes that ET carves nature at the same joints as we do, recognising the same abstract laws of maths and physics. But the more we know about minds, the more we recognise that they conceptualise the world according to the possibilities they possess for sensing and intervening in it; nothing is inevitable. We need to be more imaginative about what minds can be, and less fixated on ours as the default. As the biologist JBS Haldane once said: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Our only hope of understanding the universe, he said, “is to look at it from as many different points of view as possible.” We may need those other minds.
Like, wow. Has Ball been a visitor, here?
Secondly, the Johns Hopkins University Press kindly shared an article from one of its periodicals, Josh Schuster’s “Critique of Alien Reason: Toward a Critical Interplanetary Humanities”. Schuster’s nod to the title of Kant’s magnum opus; the invocation of critique, as such; and the urge toward an expansion of the purview of the humanities (as per Jeffrey Kripal’s efforts) all echo concerns here at the Skunkworks.
Schuster examines the recursive relation between the potential discovery of an Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and that discovery’s consequences for our self-understanding and understanding of life on earth in general, but no less (which is important, here), the ways “The science of the search as well as the cultural and civilizational questions embedded in any possible contact event are connected [if not determined] fundamentally to established philosophical positions towards cosmology, alterity, and co-existence.” Among these evolving positions is the growing awareness “that we require a contemporary—and more-than-human—political model for how to share the planet as a whole,” not only with humankind, but all the earth’s other lifeforms, an essential thesis here at the Skunkworks. The urgency of this question is underlined by humanity’s marked, indeed catastrophic, failure to share the earth, either with its own kind or its animal and plant Others. In this regard, Schuster draws the inference—one often drawn here—that “The ironic failure to connect SETI and the search for inhabited exoplanets to habitability crises on Earth…means that SETI research is at risk of continuing to repeat the failure to share the biodiverse [and racially, culturally diverse] Earth.”
Schuster draws our attention to one fundamental flaw in SETI, rooted in its cultural embeddedness: “The long history of treating Black and Indigenous bodies as Other and alien is encoded in historical conceptualizations of extraterrestrial otherness,” a not uncomplicated matter. Shuster draws out the implications of this embeddedness: “The meaningfulness of SETI, in other words, does not depend alone on whether or not there is actual contact with ETIs. What SETI most compellingly offers is a place for public reflection on and enaction of a commitment to planetary sharing and cosmological commons.” Such reflection brings into play the recursiveness Schuster is at pains to illuminate:
Thinking humanistically about the planet, …would include thinking of what can be called the interplanetary humanities in the context of a potential plurality of worlds. SETI research and thinking envisaged thus would play a role in understanding Earth as a planet among planets and in shaping the trajectory of planetary thinking in the environmental humanities. The result is that the scientific and cultural implications of SETI will help inform the humanistic thinking about our planet and vice versa.
Deliciously, in this regard, Schuster lays out Kant’s “rational alienology” as discovered and originally researched by Peter Szendy, not to present it in and for itself but as “an opportunity to sketch out some of the basic conceptualizations that are implicit in what [Schuster discusses] as a chiasmus of Kant’s thinking of SETI and philosophy.” One implication of Kant’s reflections Szendy teases out is the startling insight that “thinking SETI does not necessarily mean actually thinking about aliens, but recognizing methodologically and formally how human consciousness imbricates within itself an alien consciousness. This alien consciousness is ultimately in a paradoxical way deeply intimate yet radically unthinkable at the same time.” Delightfully, “Szendy finds similar implications … in the work of Carl Schmitt, Edmund Husserl, Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas, each of whom entertains at key moments how the alien point of view from exoplanetary space fundamentally changes conceptualizations of dwelling, cosmopolitanism, and human being on Earth.”
Schuster concludes his study with a reading of Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence,” which “piercingly reflects on how the desire to look up at the skies and contemplate alien contact frequently corresponds to a refusal to look down and around at the forms of contact among interspecies others on Earth,” a frequent theme addressed here at the Skunkworks. Indeed, Schuster articulates a not uncommon thesis we ourselves has posited here:
The Fermi paradox, embedded in the Anthropocene, may be explained by the irony that the science and technology that allow a civilization to become spacefaring also relies on extractivism, exploitation, and climate-changing processes that undermines that planet’s life. Instead of asking aliens how to escape the bottleneck of the Anthropocene, it would be easier to ask counsel of our animal neighbors. The only way out of this paradox, as Chiang’s parrot recognizes, is that SETI must be folded into multispecies relations and multispecies relations into SETI. [my emphasis]
Here’s to more such chance encounters, not because their authors are likeminded, but because of what they bring and contribute to a shared, urgent body of concern.
Aside from the Disclosure fever the American government’s most recent, pubic interest in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) has fired up, noticeable is bolder curiousity in the phenomenon expressed by members of the scientific community. Two examples are astrobiologists Jacob Haqq Misra and Ravi Kopparapu, recently interviewed by ScienceNews.
Such strictly physical investigations fall outside the purview of Skunkworks (however problematically...). Nevertheless, this recent conversation with Haqq Misra is timely, as he is a member of the editorial board of the most recent, scholarly foray into the field, Limina: the Journal of UAP Studies, whose founder and editor-in-chief is one of our most recent and forceful interlocutors here, Mike Cifone, the author of the no less-philosophically-oriented ufological blog, Entaus.
Since his early interventions here, Cifone and I have pursued a very energetic and dizzying correspondence sub rosa, as it were, a conversation that persuades me of the not inconsiderable promise of this new venture. I encourage readers here, whose interests extend to those outlined in Limina‘s mission statement and focus, to attend and follow this latest attempt to investigate UAP with scientific rigor and scholarly gravity.
Luis Cayetano (“Ufology” is corrupt) kindly conducted a wide-ranging, freewheeling chat with me about UFOs, ufology, and the UFO mythology, among many, many other things.
Cayetano’s questions, prompts, and curtness allowed me free reign to opine and reflect on topics usually passed over or still to be addressed here at the Skunkworks. This format sometimes saw (heard?) my verbal energies outrun my reflective faculties, but I’m grateful to Luis for the opportunity to explore the field in this way. I may not have been my most eloquent or pithy at all points, but I was, at least, I think, coherent.
Because of technological limitations, viewers/listeners will be treated not to two hours of looking at us yack but to a montage-commentary, often funny and wittily commenting on what’s being said. Thanks to Cayetano for going through the trouble.
You can see the interview, here.
Cifone’s approach is complementary to and marginally overlaps that pursued here. Where I bracket the question of the reality, nature, or being of the UFO to focus on its meaning, Cifone has resolutely set his sights on thinking through just what a knowledge or science of that reality might be. Of course, the line that divides the being from the meaning of the phenomenon touches both…
Cifone has probed and questioned that “meaning / being” distinction (as has Jeffrey Kripal), interrogations that prompt me, here, to reflect on the field or space wherein that line is drawn.
Anyone acquainted with the topic of UFOs will quickly be struck by its division into Believers and Skeptics or Debunkers if not moved or forced to take a side themselves. The interminable strife between the two sides is fought, more or less, over the question of “the reality” of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). Generally, Believers believe that UAP are more properly UFOs, not so much phenomena (or mere “appearances”) but real, anomalous, unidentified objects (however much many of them insist on going one step further and identifying them as, e.g., alien spaceships…), while Debunkers maintain that there is in fact nothing behind the phenomena, which are merely misidentifications, illusions, hoaxes, and rumour. UFOs are either some thing or nothing.
When the UFO curious turn their attention from the unidentified flying object to the subject of the witness or experiencer, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) take long to discover the phenomenon can inspire a religious or spiritual response. The cognoscenti will know that this dimension of the phenomenon has long been a subject of study among scholars of religion. Part of the methodology of such research is “to bracket” questions of the truth of witness testimony or that of whatever reality might lie behind it all the better to focus on the character of the experience and its effects, changes in beliefs and behaviour. Kripal, for his reasons, is impatient with the assumptions and implications of this practice, and Cifone (in comments here at Skunkworksblog and in private communication with our team) has more rigorously argued, at least, that the border between these two focii may be blurrier than the practicing sociologist is aware or willing to admit. As much as I agree with Cifone’s criticisms (which echo some of Hegel’s criticisms of Kant, that to draw a limit is to think both sides of the limit), it seemed to me that where that limit is drawn is itself only one border of a much larger field.
What first inspired my adult interest in the matter were the abduction accounts increasingly in the air in the early Nineties. My reflexive response was skeptical: no one is really being abducted by aliens. Because I rejected out of hand a literal interpretation of these accounts, a space was opened to understand these stories in another way. Being a poet and literary scholar and therefore not unacquainted with Surrealism and its inspiration in Freud’s Traumdeutung, a view into the matter that hinged on the notions of manifest and latent content opened up before me. Because these accounts were retrieved under hypnosis, it seemed to me they were more like dreams than memories, significant more for their meaning (latent content) than for the story they told (their manifest content). Given the foment in reproductive technology at the time—the Human Genome Project, cloning, and In Vitro Fertilization—should it have come as a surprise that women would have nightmares about being subject to gynecological experiments carried out by impersonal, cold-blooded aliens? (Bridget Brown probes the matter in greater depth and breadth in her They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves: The History and Politics of Alien Abduction). It was this initial intuition that quickly dilated to encompass the countless stories about the UFO, to grasp them as a kind of collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of late Twentieth-Century technological society.
What first caught (and continues to keep) my attention, then, was and is not “the UFO itself” but the stories about it, its culturally “virtual” dimension. On this side of whatever experience might motivate sighting reports, there is a vast, practically infinite cultural field, non-fictional and fictional: the reports themselves, articles, books, documentaries, films and television series, graphic novels, on and on. Of course, to those enamoured or otherwise obsessed with the matter of the UFO’s ultimate reality, my interest must seem a wayward dalliance (though I imagine proponents of the Psychosocial Hypothesis might disagree), but there’s little denying that this cultural aspect of the UFO is as “real” a reality for human consciousness in general as whatever experiences are associated with sightings or encounters. It’s in the form of some representation, image or story, that most people know about UFOs as opposed to the relatively small number who claim to have seen or otherwise experienced something. Indeed, that this “spiritual” (German: geistig) aspect is in some ways even more real than whatever physical reality UFOs might in fact possess is a case I have made here, before.
At the level of getting the creative and critical work done and evading the black hole of “the UFO controversy”, the approach I outline does the trick. The aesthetic value of a cinematic work of art, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, does not depend upon whether UFOs are “real”, and my collaborator and I can quite successfully study the worldview and values and other features of the Raëlian Movement International without having to determine the veracity of Claude Vorilhon’s first witness report. However, from a more philosophical or, strictly, epistemological point of view, Cifone’s and Kripal’s interventions demand attention and even, in the grand(er) scheme of things, threaten to destabilize at least the strictly humanistic study of the UFO phenomenon thought as a “myth of things seen in the sky.”
In the first place, the spatial metaphor that would draw a line between the countless representations of the the UFO (the myth or mythology) and whatever phenomenon or phenomena that in fact stimulate witness reports and the placing of this stimulus in a small corner of the field is misleading, as it effaces the temporal, historical dimension of the whole matter. From the point of view of the Believer, the mythology is continually maintained by ever new reports and revelations (disclosures if not Disclosure). The “space” here is like that of a night sky: however much we might only ever be able to observe the light from distant stars (the mythology), real objects (Unidentified Flying Objects) are the source of this information in however a variously refracted or diffused form it reaches us. For the Skeptic, however, the total phenomenon (mythology and stimuli) is essentially temporal. No observation is ever “naive”. Seeing something as a UFO is an interpretation guided if not governed by pre-existing images and stories already “in the air”, the cultural horizon of the witness. For the skeptic, the UFO is essentially hyperreal; that what one is seeing is a “UFO” is confirmed by representations of UFOs already familiar to the witness. The relation between the mythology and whatever inspires witness reports is distorted by attempting to map them onto some space (aside from the very question of dividing the field into these two spaces in the first place).
Vigilant readers will notice I have, 1) overturned the metaphor of a field or space whereby I first thought to respond to Cifone’s and Kripal’s objections and, 2) skirted the still pertinent question of how the nature of the UFO phenomenon might in fact relate to the mythology that radiates from it (if not maintain it). Not that I imagine to resolve so complex and recalcitrant an issue, but, in my next post, I propose a “radical” “theory” of the UFO (which I doubt today’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon hearing before the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation Subcommittee is likely to derail)…
Well, maybe not the worst, but pretty bad. At least his dumbfoundingly vapid clickbait articles for The Debrief serve to maintain if not swell the site’s advertising revenues.
That being said, as any more-or-less regular reader here will know, Loeb has become something of this site’s bête noire. Since he came into the public eye with his hypothesis concerning ‘Oumuamua, his speculations about extraterrestrial life, civilization, and technology have consistently embodied the ideological tendencies targeted here. Since his starting up The Galileo Project and becoming a regular contributor at The Debrief, his pronouncements have become all the more exasperating. However much I resolved to “whack-a-Loeb“, his latest contribution, which deigns to wax philosophical about ethics, has reached such a nadir of intellectual dereliction I’m persuaded (and hope!) this post will be my last on him.
Loeb titles his article “How Can We Guide Our Life?” (which right away sets the linguistically-attuned mind furiously scribbling questions…). Whatever exactly he might intend by this title, I take it his article begins by posing the question, roughly, of what one should live for. He rejects being concerned with one’s posthumous reputation. Asked for his “opinion about the true mark of human greatness”, his response is, in a word, humility. He, then, shifts his attention from the person to, presumably, the species: “How does humanity wish to be remembered on the cosmic scene?” Loeb’s answer is arguably the same, as humble, but on a species-wide scale: humanity is best remembered as possessing an “unpresuming culture that sought knowledge-based [sic] on new evidence from interstellar space,” which, having discovered “that there is a smarter culture on the cosmic block” sought “to do better in the future relative to our cosmic neighbors than we did in the past.”
It doesn’t take too much close scrutiny to find the lapses in Loeb’s logic. In terms of how each of us should lead our lives, Loeb would, on the one hand, have us ignore our personal legacy. For himself, he seems to place little stock in posthumous reputation (he could “care less about what other people say”): those who follow are unlikely to have much insight into the whole truth of his life nor are they necessarily going to be the most charitable commentators; memorials, such as paintings or statues, communicate “little about…guiding principles or the value of…accomplishments” (assuming that is their raison d’etre…). Shifting to a cosmic perspective, even Einstein is put in his place, as “[m]ost likely, there were smarter scientists on habitable planets around other stars billions of years ago”. From this perspective, that of “the vast scale and splendor implicit in the cosmos” wherein “all humans die within ten billionths of cosmic history,” all individual accomplishments shrink to nothing. However, on the other hand, Loeb confesses he guides his life “so as to have an opportunity to press a button on extraterrestrial technological equipment,” to be the one to discover an unquestionable artifact of alien technology. As the one to make this discovery, Loeb would, by his own account, be the one to “force a sense of modesty and awe in all of us” as we discern our place on, at least, “the cosmic block.” Being the one to put us in our interstellar place, Loeb would imaginably take his place with the likes of Copernicus and Galileo, at least as far as human history is concerned, which would be quite the legacy, one to be proud of….
When it comes to how humanity might be “remembered on the cosmic scene,” deeper problems yawn. One might well ask: remembered by whom? Loeb leaves this question unasked and unanswered. Either homo sapiens will be known by itself or by other forms of extraterrestrial intelligence, which, for Loeb, includes forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the event of our extinction, then, imagines Loeb, “perhaps our technological kids, AI astronauts, will survive,” artifacts best designed to “carry the flame of consciousness” out into distant space and time, and, thereby, into the awareness and memories of other intelligent lifeforms. At the same time, however, Loeb advocates a humility, not only because, as he surmises, other, alien intelligences have, do, and will exceed our own, but, from the point of view of “the vast scale and splendor implicit in the cosmos…all humans die within ten billionths of cosmic history,” extinguishing both their legacy and their narrow-minded, perverse self-importance. From this perspective, whether humankind is proud or humble, whether its traces are one day discovered or not, seems pointless. On the one hand, Loeb posits that humility should guide our life; while, on the other, he, personally, aspires to a historical greatness (guided by the aspiration to be the one who discovers an indisputable extraterrestrial technological artifact); he suggests humankind should culture some kind of memorialized humility or at least leave a more durable legacy in the form of its own technology dispersed throughout the stars, but the vast spatiotemporal scale of the cosmos swallows all such aspirations, reducing them to nothing. Either Loeb’s cosmic ethic must restrict itself to the human scale, which, for Loeb is merely an arrogant, self-centred point-of-view, or it must view things from a cosmic perspective, which dissolves all possible value in its implacable vastness.
Loeb’s thinking is riddled by such ironies or contradictions. He constantly advocates against being narrow-minded and self-centred, but his entire worldview is oriented to just such a perverse self-regard. His “humanity” is hardly all human cultures that have lived or do, but that of the so-called “advanced societies” of what used to be termed “the First World”. This idolatry is evident in the old-fashioned sentiment that “human history advances” and in the technofetishistic fantasy of “our technological kids, AI astronauts” that can act as vessels for “the fire of consciousness.” This squinting focus on the technological is evident in the disdainful yawn he shares with “kids” (presumably students) who pass by the “statues and paintings of distinguished public figures” in University Hall at Harvard University. Paintings and statues, however, aren’t made to communicate accomplishments of those honoured but to memorialize them because of their accomplishments. Loeb, here, betrays, as usual, an instrumental thinking, one that conceives of everything in terms of ends and means and efficiency (“A video message would [be] far more informative in conveying the authentic perspective of these people from our past”), i.e., Loeb’s stance in this regard, despite his philosophical airs, reveals him to be a rank philistine when it comes to matters of general culture. This narrowness is most egregious at its most unconscious. Loeb relates he inscribes a “personal copy of [his] book Extraterrestrial to [his] new postdoc… just arrived at Harvard from the University of Cambridge in the UK” as follows: “although you arrived to the Americas well after they were discovered, you are here just in time for discovering extraterrestrial intelligence and its own new world.” The blithe indifference to the fact that Turtle Island was hardly “discovered” least of all by his post-doc’s European forebears and his oblique referring to it as “the new world” betray an unconscious colonialism.
Taken together these stances reveal the direst irony of Loeb’s incessant invectives against narrow-mindedness and self-centredness. As I have never tired of pointing out, whenever Loeb posits older, more intelligent (or, at least, knowledgeable) extraterrestrials, he doesn’t decentre humankind but centres it all the more securely, taking Western instrumental reason to be characteristic of intelligence-as-such and Western, technoscientific society as the instantiation if not the very universal model of civilization. All these presuppositions, prejudices, and unreflected blindspots taken together coalesce into a black hole around which all Loeb’s conjectures about extraterrestrial intelligence, civilization, and technology orbit, a black hole into which I hereby consign all the man’s thoughts that touch on what concerns us here at the Skunkworks.
I wear it as a badge of honour that the perspective I take here at Skunkworks is unique.
I am aware, nevertheless, of at least some whose interests are close. There’s the second, more theoretical, part of M. J. Banias‘ The UFO People: a curious culture (glowingly reviewed by no less than Thomas E. Bullard, here). Gittlitz is, to my knowledge, the only person to reflect on the pertinence of Marxism to ufology (he is presently promoting his new book I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism). Recently, too, I became aware of Luis Cayetano, whose website “Ufology” is corrupt” is concerned more with the social, political, and psychological aspects of ufology than with UFOs themselves, a description that could be applied to what goes on here; however, Cayetano’s stance is much more vehemently skeptical and dismissive (along the lines of what one reads at author Jason Colavito’s blog).
Occasionally, however, I chance across the likeminded. Among these, I was happy to encounter Doug Johnson, who recently published the article “Decolonizing the Search for Extraterrestrials” in Undark. Here, in much the same way that I criticize certain unconscious colonialist strains in ufological discourse, Johnson shines a light on the same orientation in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Johnson’s article is thorough, unmasking the colonialist language of space exploration, the indifference of SETI researchers to Indigenous perspectives, conflicts between SETI research and Indigenous peoples (e.g., the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii), and the speciesism and Eurocentrism that underwrite speculations about “intelligence” and “civilization”, longstanding themes here at the Skunkworks.
You can read the article—which I urge you to do—either by clicking on its title, above, or at the link just under the picture, below.
As part of what’s up here, I’m given to monitoring certain social media sites as a kind of ethnographic observer. The satirical piece, “Ufo page discussion comment” below, is developed from my field notes. Regrettably, WordPress doesn’t allow me reproduce the text’s redactions, so I append it as a PDF.
Sometime interlocutor here at the Skunkworks, Mike Cifone, a philosopher of science among other things, has launched a new blog as a space to work out his thoughts on and more importantly towards the possibility of a science of UFOs.
Cifone’s approach is complementary to and marginally overlaps that pursued here. Where I bracket the question of the reality, nature, or being of the UFO to focus on its meaning, Cifone has resolutely set his sights on thinking through just what a knowledge or science of that reality might be. Of course, the line that divides the being from the meaning of the phenomenon touches both, and in drawing that line, as I’ve had to do to make my own position clear, I have had to venture some thoughts that Cifone has found germane.
Cifone, in a radically philosophical move, begins from a point of radical ignorance of the nature of the phenomenon he would see illuminated. As he writes, “we are trying to establish our definitive ignorance, our definite lack of knowledge about something that has, frustratingly, entered into the purview of our otherwise ordinary experience.” It is from just such a standpoint, as Socrates and Husserl would agree, that the first, tentative steps toward knowledge begin.
Cifone’s notes toward a “liminal epistemology” are a breath of fresh air, sure to ruffle the feathers of both believers and skeptics.
Robert Sheaffer’s recently posting his 1977 review of The Invisible College prompted me to “text-check” (if not fact-check) some of his claims. This exercise prompted me to read, at least, the nearly fifty-year-old book’s introduction, which remains strikingly contemporary.
Vallée’s book is remarkable, first, because of its then-novel approach to the question of the UFO, one with analogues, here. Where, in his first three books (the first two co-authored with his wife, Janine)—Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965), Challenge to Science (1966), and Passport to Magonia (1969)—his focus was the Unidentified Flying Object, in The Invisible College he examines “the role of this phenomenon and its impact on each of us.” That is, to speak philosophically, he shifts attention from the object to the subject. Vallée clarifies this switch involves setting aside both the strictly scientific, “nuts-and-bolts” approach (which he terms the “technological”) usually associated with the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (that UFOs are alien spaceships) as well as the “psychological”, that “UFO reports [are] archetypes or…the fulfillment of a psychological need”; and, by the same token, he also rejects the sceptical explanation, that UFOs are nothing more than “the result of misidentifications and hoaxes”.
Rather bracingly (and I had forgotten this) he claims to “approach this inquiry within the framework of descriptive phenomenology,” which his model, social scientist Cynthia Nelson, defines as the attempt “to communicate the quality and structure…of any concrete phenomenon in experience.” Vallée quite correctly in our view observes that Nelson asks “the question of the meaning” of religious phenomena “in a way that is directly applicable” to UFOs, quoting her important point concerning the consequences of this approach for the question of the reality of the phenomenon: “As phenomenologists we suspend judgement as to whether the apparition is really real (a question for scientific naturalism) and attempt rather to understand what people do when confronting stress. If [human beings] define situations as real they are real in their consequences.” In this spirit, Vallée lays out a threefold task for himself: to “review what is experienced by the witnesses; …observe what they do as a result of these experiences; and …attempt to correlate them within a total framework.”
Vallée’s distinctions here are much finer than one usually finds made among the ufophilic or ufomaniacal. Those convinced of UFO reality will dismiss Vallée’s whole enterprise, here, while the sceptical, I imagine, would all-too-quickly point out that the psychological explanations for the UFO are already oriented to the subject (i.e., the witness). But such criticisms miss the mark, for, at least in his espousing “descriptive phenomenology”, Vallée sidesteps the debate between the believer and sceptic, taking neither side for the sake of attending the effects of a UFO experience on the witness in particular and society at large in general. As Nelson observes, if a phenomenon is experienced as real it is real in its consequences, which Vallée affirms: “In this sense the UFO phenomenon is undoubtedly real.”
Vallée’s approach itself, however, calls for some scrutiny as a particular confusion, evident and consequent to this day, deflects the promise of his adopting a phenomenological framework. After distinguishing the “technological” and “psychological” approaches, he continues:
Modern science developed on the premise that these two domains of the physical and psychological must always be carefully separated. In my view this distinction, although convenient, has been arbitrary. The UFO phenomenon is a direct challenge to this arbitrary dichotomy between physical reality and spiritual reality.
Attentive readers, along with those not unacquainted with the history of science, will likely balk at the semantic drift from “physical/psychological” to “physical/spiritual”. The division Vallée refers to is, more strictly, that between, as Descartes expressed it, the res extensa and the res cogitans: roughly, “things” or “stuff” with spatial dimensions and cognizant or conscious “things” or “stuff”. The former is amenable to observation and experimentation in ways the latter is not. This division, hardly “arbitrary”, bred the Mind-Body Problem (how do two such radically different substances interact?), its physicalist, materialist solution (conscious states are brain states), resistance to such reductionism (whether “the hard problem of consciousness” or Bernardo Kastrup’s Analytic Idealism, for example), and, most pertinently, those who see in the UFO phenomenon a solution to what they call the mystery of “consciousness”. Vallée, arguably, fails to escape certain consequences of such dualistic thinking to this very day, due, here, to his conflating the post-Cartesian res cogitans with the more rigorously thought-out and markedly non-substantial concept of consciousness as developed in the phenomenological tradition.
Turning to Vallée’s tripartite approach brings into view how groundbreaking The Invisible College was and, to some extent, remains, for what is experienced by the witness is often parapsychological phenomena: spacetime distortions (“missing time”), materializations, telepathy, poltergeist phenomena, and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) among them. The case of an unnamed engineer Vallée recounts includes, too, physical changes: hyper- and hyposomnia, quickened mental capacities (e.g., comprehension and retention), hyperimmunity to infectious diseases, and changes in eyesight. Vallée, of course, widens this focus on UFO reports to include those stories of miracles and apparitions studied and catalogued in Passport to Magonia. When he demands ufology expand its field to include both such psychical effects and premodern cases he inaugurates “a Unified Theory of Apparitions” or what I have come to call a Unified Field Theory of the Paranormal (doubtless hardly the first), an important theme given expression most recently in the various talks delivered at Rice University’s Archives of the Impossible Conference.
It’s this dilation of the field of investigation that is one connection of Vallée’s argument here to what Jeffrey Kripal has recently termed the “superhumanities“. There are, however, other points of contact between what Vallée envisioned nearly five decades ago and these superhumanities. As an argument to link the humanities to the paranormal, Kripal notes the hermeneutic dimension of these disciplines, that they deal essentially with understanding and meaning. In this regard, he notes how paranormal experiences often seem hypercharged with meaning; the experiencer often speaks as if they were in a story or movie. It’s a curious (at least) coincidence that Vallée describes his anonymous engineer’s experience in the same terms: “As in a dream or a movie” he is transported from his friends to an indeterminate locale where he is faced by huge, computer-like machine. At present, we must wait for a fuller articulation of just what exactly Kripal has in mind by the “superhumanities”, which we trust will be spelled out in his forthcoming book from University of Chicago Press, but it seems an educated guess that, since the paranormal occupies an ontological space both/neither matter and/nor mind, its investigation demands a super-interdisciplinarity, drawing on both the natural and human sciences, a sentiment echoed by Vallée, when he observes, concerning the witness effects addressed in his book, “It is not possible to study such data with techniques of statistics or physics alone. The cooperation of a much larger group is needed…”.
There is, however, a more fateful and problematic shared feature of Vallée’s and Kripal’s thinking, their position that “The UFO phenomenon [and the paranormal in general] is a direct challenge to [the]… dichotomy between physical reality and spiritual reality,” or matter and mind. Kripal, like Vallée, arguably thinks in Cartesian terms, that being is made up of two kinds of substance, material and mental, a presupposition whose remaining unthought and unreflected constitutes a fatal flaw in the foundations of much of the discourse about the paranormal. As I’ve observed in coming to terms with Kripal’s proposals concerning the superhumanities, there’s “material” (both as classical materialist philosophies (e.g., that of Epicurus) and contemporary natural sciences conceive of it) and “material” (as in the expression “historical materialist”), “meaning” (in the object of the hermeneutic disciplines) and “meaning” (as in that profound meaningfulness of a mystical or entheogenic experience). As well, there is “consciousness” (as in “consciousness studies”, which seems a synonym for “mind” or the res cogitans) and “consciousness” (the investigation, structure, and problem of which is a vital problem for philosophy, from Kant on down to Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, among others). The failure to distinguish (at least!) these senses of concepts basic to the discourse, it seems to me, undermines its potential, future success.
Finally, I was struck by a dimension of Vallée’s thinking that should have been obvious but, because it might be said to inform his approach in general, had gone unnoticed by me. Vallée begins the introduction to his book by referring to “the statistical facts”, that the patterns of UFO reports “follow definite laws for which no explanation has been found.” These “statistical facts” are those reported in the Vallée’s first two books, whose laws were arrived at by the compilation of data bases and their being subject to various algorithmic investigation or computation. Given Vallée’s background in what in French is termed informatique, we should not be too surprised to find a cybernetic systems-oriented thinking underwriting his work. Indeed, the central thesis of The Invisible College, that the UFO phenomenon “constitutes a control system” like a thermostat, that is, a reflexive, self-regulating system, is cybernetic through and through. In 2022, we are so immersed in digital technology and media it is difficult even to perceive them and their effects on us; “That which is nearest is farthest away” to paraphrase Heraclitus. It would be an interesting exercise to review Vallée’s corpus to date with an eye for the presence and function of the cybernetic. One wonders just what meaningful patterns might not be brought to light.
Many readers might at this point be thinking that this blog post, if not as long as the introduction to The Invisible College itself, is longer than most reviews of the entire book! But what I’m up to here is only a preliminary (!) taking stock of a work that, on review, has proven prescient and influential, a fact that can only come into view in hindsight, an exercise that demands to be periodically performed. Or one could attribute these findings to the synchronicity of Robert Scheaffer’s posting a review from 1977. In either case, Vallée’s writing has shown itself to be saying more than was originally heard or than is understood by his readers even today.
Robert Sheaffer recently reshared his review of Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College. As one might well imagine, Sheaffer is not very impressed by Vallée’s book. Sheaffer’s review is titled “Jacques Vallée’s Invisible College Teaches ‘Meta-logic'”. As student of philosophy and logic, the expression “metalogic” twigged my interest: Vallée’s being a programmer, I imagined he might well understand the expression in its mathematical or logical sense, and he recently spoke of the UFO phenomenon as a “metasystem”, so I was moved to look into just what he had written concerning the metalogical in the pages of his book.
Sheaffer represents what Vallée in fact writes on pp. 26-28 of the Dutton Paperback edition (1975) as follows:
Monsieur Vallee, computer scientist, astrophysicist, and member or the scientific board of Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies, has a unique way of looking at the universe. It’s called “metalogic.” For those or us not familiar with that term, he explains that it means quite the same thing as “absurd.” So should we protest that Vallee’s theories are “absurd,” he will correct our usage: they are merely “metalogical.” That’s the next level above common sense, just beyond the “edge of reality.” …
Sheaffer’s review continues in this vein, governed by this initial reading. However, Vallée seems to mean something quite other by the term in question. He writes: “What do we know of the nature of the communication that is reported to occur between human witnesses and the UFOs they perceive? I have earlier commented that, on the surface, such communication appears to be simply absurd. The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading; I prefer the expression ‘meta-logical'” (26). “Metalogical” therefore is clearly not “a unique way of looking at the universe [my emphasis]” but a way of understanding what witnesses report experiencing or having communicated to them by the occupants of UFOs. Nor does Vallée write that “metalogical” “means quite the same thing as ‘absurd'”: in fact, he claims the experiences and communications are not properly or most illuminatingly described as absurd (“The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading…”), but, better, as metalogical. Moreover, if we actually read Vallée’s words, nor does “metalogical” describe his own theories or speculations.
So, just how, then, might we understand Vallée’s use of “metalogical”? He provides a number of examples, but explains their significance in the following terms:
Situations such as these often have the deep poetic and paradoxical quality [my emphasis] of Eastern religious tales [Vallée means koans] (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and the mystical expressions of the Cabala, such as references to a “dark flame”. If you strive to convey a truth that lies beyond the semantic level made possible by your audience’s language, you must construct apparent contradictions in terms of ordinary meaning. (27)
Now, I’ll be the first to observe Vallée’s expression does him no favours in getting what I take to be his point across. I take him to mean, first, that, just like a koan or oxymoron, the UFO event deflects attention from its obscure, puzzling surface to something beyond itself: Vallée seems to be saying that, like these forms of expression, the UFO event is, in a sense, ironic or metaphorical: the UFO is not an extraterrestrial spaceship, but its appearing so is, to some extent, merely (ironically!) a vehicle (the metaphorical, figurative aspect of a metaphor) whose meaning is something other (what rhetoricians term the metaphor’s tenor); but more to the point, like a paradox, the event is in some respect reflexive or “meta”, at the very least in the way the metaphor’s vehicle must be grasped as a vehicle in order for it to be negated or transcended to some tenor.
The French critic Roland Barthes, in his aptly titled Mythologies, provides an apt example:
I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.
Following, I take it, the mathematical or logical sense of ‘metalogical’, Vallée is attempting to explain—and not for the only time in his writings—that the UFO event is not what it seems; its “high strangeness” (nonsensical conversations with the ufonauts or clocks without hands in their apparent spaceship) is the absurd, paradoxical content that puzzles and frustrates a literal-minded interpretation of the event in order to shift reflection to another level. Like the exemplary sentence in Barthes’ example, its significance is not its meaning; it operates at two levels. Whether or not we are persuaded by this view of the phenomenon is another matter, but at least we have arrived at a textually-warranted understanding of Vallée’s position.
Anyone acquainted with what I have written on Vallée, especially his last book and his keynote address at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, will know I’m hardly uncritical, but, at the same time, criticisms that fail to hit their mark do justice neither to themselves nor what they aim to skewer.
More on Vallée’s The Invisible College (its introduction, anyway) can be read, here.
This past Tuesday (22 March 2022), Jeffrey Kripal delivered a lecture “The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities” under the auspices of the University of British Columbia’s Program in the Study of Religion as part, in part, of the kind of promotion that goes on in academic circles for his new book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.
Normally, I would have written up my response immediately following the lecture, but I was given pause for two reasons. First, Kripal’s concluding remarks included the confession that he didn’t care if he were wrong. This is no irresponsible shrug of his scholarly shoulders, but, on one hand, an admission of his and all of our human, all-too-human limitations: anyone can be mistaken, even about matters that have concerned them a lifetime; on the other, as he went on to say, any scrutiny of his position and arguments around it push the topic along and keep it, well, topical. I think, too, his words have a more personal sense, one appropriate to a scholar and thinker at a certain stage in their career: he’s invested a life’s work in the matter and, at this point, his sense of the value of what he has accomplished, if only for himself, and what he has set out still to do is unlikely to be very much altered by the kind of criticism it is likely to face in the academic or para-academic milieu. Second, especially in the wake of the Archives of the Impossible conference, which I responded to, as well, I was struck by how, on the one hand (…), certain figures in certain circles can say nothing wrong. Here, I’m thinking of the reception of the plenary sessions delivered by Jacques Vallée, Whitley Strieber, and Diana Pasulka (now Diana Heath, if I understand correctly). On the other hand, these same figures in certain other circles can say nothing right. Such dogmatic stances to the matter at hand fail to do justice to it, if it’s at all as important as Kripal and other invested researchers believe it to be. In this context, my own interventions, when they are understood to be at all critical—and they have been, at times—have been misconstrued as siding with the “skeptics”. So, if Kripal is persuaded of the soundness of his views and any reflections on the matter I might offer will likely be misunderstood (if they’re read by very many at all), I can be forgiven, I think, a certain reflective reticence….
That being said, I am moved to share my thoughts on Kripal’s lecture. In one regard, our respective projects might be said to overlap: his proposed, forthcoming trilogy concerns what he terms “emergent mythologies”, among them that which hovers around the UFO. In another respect, our more fundamental positions might appear to be complementary: Kripal seems intent to disabuse us of a certain received history of modernity, “materialism” or “secularism” (that science and reason have dispelled religion and the belief in and experience of the supernatural or paranormal), while I work around the edges of that technoscientfic hegemony to reveal its historical roots in its Other (religion and magic) and its being embedded and invested in social formations and practices that ground its reification and ideological function, i.e., we’re both critical of a too-comfortable self-image of “advanced society”. Finally, despite his confidence if not comfort in what he believes his scholarship has established to date, as a reader of Nietzsche, he will appreciate that, whatever criticisms I level here, what does not kill his positions might serve to make them stronger.
Kripal’s lecture is essentially tripartite. He begins by outlining what back in the days of High Theory would have been termed a “violent hierarchy”, a binary opposition wherein one term is valorized or privileged, in this case, that between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and the humanities: the former studies objects about which it gathers evidence that it quantifies numerically in order to grasp causal mechanisms underlying the behaviour of nature; the latter studies human subjects by means of the narratives produced by or about them (“anecdotes”); thus the primary data of the humanities is texts whose meaning it seeks to understand. For STEM, physics, nature or matter is absolute; for the humanities, the social. It needs hardly be pointed out that STEM is the valorized term in the context of higher education and society in general. Kripal goes on to posit that psi phenomena trouble if not collapse this opposition, being the space wherein the res extensa of physics and the res cogitans of the mental interact intractably.
Next, Kripal, as he says, “drops names”: as counter-evidence to Max Weber’s thesis concerning the disenchantment (Entzauberung) of the world in modernity, he reviews prominent figures whose taking seriously psi is generally overlooked or devalued. He refers to Madame Curie’s attending a séance; Immanuel Kant’s interest in the reported clairvoyance of Emmanuel Swedenborg; Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s advocacy of what today we term “paranormal”; William James’ parapsychological research and interest in various hallucinogenics and psychedelics; the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois; Derrida’s putative “conversion to telepathy”; Foucault’s LSD trip in Death Valley and interest in the California counterculture; and the experiences and ideas of recent figures, Gloria Anzaldua and Amitav Ghosh.
To conclude, on the basis of this quick sketch of the repressed or suppressed paranormal, Kripal draws a number of inferences. The humanities have, in a sense, always been shadowed or haunted by the superhumanities, i.e., a grudging, tactful, or marginalized acknowledgement of and serious interest in the paranormal. Such phenomena lend themselves to humanistic study because of their hermeneutic character, i.e., unlike merely natural phenomena that simply “are”, paranormal experiences are often experienced as charged with meaning, the very object of the art of interpretation (hermeneutics). Therefore, this relatively occult history of the humanities’ relation to the paranormal and the character of paranormal experience and of the humanities themselves all suggest that, were this history to be more openly acknowledged and affirmed and the phenomena in question thereby freed from their stigma, the humanities might thereby intellectually and institutionally authorize the paranormal, ontologically, socially, and, most importantly, culturally and spiritually. Or so I understand Kripal’s lecture….
As might be imagined, I have some nits to pick with certain claims Kripal makes and more substantive reservations about his argument in general. No one, I think, familiar with the state of higher education in, at least, North America would find much to disagree with in his estimate of the situation. STEM flourishes while the humanities are starved, with some exceptions, which I will address, below. Kripal’s history of the occulted superhumanities is, however, less persuasive. Most specifically, anyone familiar with Kant, Derrida, and Foucault will be liable to take exception to his readings. Kripal points, first, to the contradiction between the one letter wherein Kant writes of reports of Swedenborg’s powers with no little curious amazement (to Charlotte von Knoblauch, 10 August, 1763 (?)) and the more generally critical work Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics he published anonymously in 1766 (though he did, in fact, reveal his authorship to friends and colleagues to whom he sent copies of the book) and, second, to the book’s “rhetoric” to argue that Kant was sympathetic to claims made for Swedenborg’s clairvoyance and visions, or so I understand him. The more accepted interpretation of the letter and book is that Kant’s opinion shifted from curiosity to skepticism after having looked further into the matter and having purchased and read Swedenborg’s works, wherein, as Kant writes, “He found what one usually finds when one has no business searching at all, exactly nothing!”. Having come of intellectual age in the Eighties, I’m one of the first to admit one might very well read Kant “against the grain” (“deconstructively”) to thereby show how precisely the rhetoric of the text undermines and contradicts its apparently explicit intent, but that exercise is painstaking and not briefly discharged; one can only wait and see if Kripal undertakes such a demonstration in his forthcoming book. With regards to Derrida’s late text “Telepathy”, I have already noted the challenges of reading it at face value, as taking telepathy literally. Anyone with the time, patience, or hermeneutic fortitude to struggle with and through the text in question itself and survey its reception will see quickly, I wager, it has as much to do with telepathy as Derrida’s more famous Specters of Marx has to do with ghosts in the parapsychological sense. Likewise with Foucault: his readers have long recognized the development of his thinking, from a famous posthumanism that looked forward to the “end of Man” and the disappearance of what in French are called “the human sciences” to his studies on human sexuality and the rediscovery of the human subject in the “art of the self”. Again, one can only wonder if a thorough-going deconstruction of Derrida’s “Telepathy” (which, at the same time, in the name of the rigor characteristic of that “method”, demands a reading, at least, of The Postcard…) is in the offing along with a reading of Foucault’s intellectual development to legitimate offering them as exhibits in his history of the (super)humanities.
The case of Nietzsche is more controversial but no less problematic. Nietzsche plays an important, dual role in the story Kripal would tell. On the one hand, he is an important source of inspiration for all those thinkers too-often all-too-loosely lumped together as “postmodern deconstructionists”—Heidegger, Derrida, & Co—whose influence (or what remains of it) Kripal would like to see displaced. On the other, even moreso than Schopenhauer (with whose work I am not sufficiently well-acquainted to comment on, like that of Du Bois, Anzaldua, or Ghosh), Nietzsche’s affirmation of psi phenomena (e.g., clairvoyance) and his annunciation of the “superman” make him a, if not the, key figure in the story of the suppressed superhumanities. Kripal draws most heavily on the unpublished writings composed around the time of Thus Spake Zarathustra, roughly from 1883 until Nietzsche’s collapse in January, 1889, fortunate enough to be able to refer to the recent English-language translation of the Critical Edition of the Collected Works. I’ll pass over reflecting on Kripal’s preferred translation of the German word for Nietzsche’s problem child, the Übermensch, and the function of that figure in Nietzsche’s thought that would call that translation into question to address the hermeneutic challenge that Kripal seems to, ironically, bypass. With regard to Kant’s text on Swedenborg, Kripal posited in his lecture that its rhetoric undermined its overt dismissal of the seer’s purported powers. However, when it comes to Nietzsche, Kripal seems all-too-ready to take his author’s words at face value, which, to anyone acquainted with Nietzsche’s styles (Derrida calls them “spurs”) and their scholarly reception must seem surprising. As is well-known, Nietzsche was a professor of classical philology and therefore well-acquainted with the rhetorical figures, tropes and schemes catalogued by the classical heritage. He is also recognized as one of the great stylists of the German-language, a style marked by a pronounced indeterminacy. Throughout his work, he employs not only a dizzying shift in tone but dons many masks, personae, among them, famously, “Zarathustra”. However much Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” might be said to belong to his nay-saying, “deconstructive” period (in Kripal’s telling), the famous passage about truth’s being “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, [and] anthropomorphisms” holds true for all his writings. It seems therefore a little inconsistent to argue that Kant’s judgements on Swedenborg’s abilities can be called into question if not undermined by the rhetoric of his sobre if somewhat baroque philosophical prose, while pronouncements made by Nietzsche in his (in)famously overtly rhetorical styles can be unproblematically taken at face value.
There is a curious irony in Kripal’s argument about the suppression of the paranormal in the humanities: the more examples he adduces the weaker his argument becomes, i.e., if he shows a consistent concern for what we term the paranormal, then in what sense is there a need for his superhumanities? The matter is far from simple. In outlining his history, he gathers evidence that the humanities, at least since the Eighteenth century, have always been in however repressed a sense the superhumanities. As we’ve seen, he maps a fascination for and engagement with the paranormal from Kant to the present (a not unfateful sample). Listening to him, I was moved to wonder just how ambivalent the humanities’ relation to what we term the paranormal has been. In his history, Kripal remarks William James and his interest in parapsychology, hallucinogens and psychedelics, as if these interests are either unknown or smirked at. However, James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, which touches on Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) in general and their chemical variations, is canonical. In the field of modern philosophy, the place of more esoteric or “mystical” doctrines is well-known and accepted: the Kabbalism of Isaac Luria enters the mainstream of European philosophy first in the work of Spinoza, then by Spinoza’s influence on Jacobi, Hegel, and others. The Neo-Platonism of Renaissance Italy (e.g., that of Ficino) and England also plays a role in that foment of philosophical reflection between Kant and Hegel. Hegel himself, famously, draws out the truth of even phrenology in his Phenomenology of Spirit, and his friend and rival Schelling published a philosophical novel on the death of his wife, Clara or, On Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World. Their contemporary, the playwright and prose writer Heinrich von Kleist, writes a ghost story “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” that presents the matter in an indeterminate manner, leaving the reader having to decide for themselves as to the “reality” of the haunting. English-language literature from the same period to the present displays a similar engagement with “the paranormal”. William Blake was a visionary, who looked “not with but through the eye” for models for his drawings and paintings. Walt Whitman’s sudden inspiration that bloomed as Leaves of Grass is attributed to his undergoing a mystical experience of “cosmic consciousness“. William Butler Yeats’ interest in ghosts, “the Fair Folk”, and magic are all well attested; his A Vision presents a metaphysical system dictated to his wife George by “spooks”. The place of the occult among the Modernist poets Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and H.D. is a rich and living vein of scholarship. And more recently, the work of William S Burroughs is no less an exploration of ASC, magic, and other aspects of the paranormal; the novelist’s character Kim Carsons from The Place of Dead Roads embodies these fascinations well: “His mother had been into table-tapping and Kim adores ectoplasm, crystal balls, spirit guides and auras.” Such an offhand catalogue seems to both strengthen and overturn Kripal’s position: there is doubtless a longstanding and general interest and engagement in “the paranormal” among thinkers and artists, but, if this is so, then the humanities have always been, in a way, the superhumanities: just what institutional and societal changes, then, does Kripal imagine are called for?
I wager this apparent tension can be resolved if we attend both to the explicit historical horizon Kripal is working within and some of its dimmer, more occluded edges. As I understand it, Kripal is pushing back against a certain understanding or reception of Weber’s contention that industrialized and bureaucratic societies undergo a “disenchantment” (German: Entzauberung) that gets restated in the Secularization Thesis in sociology, that this process of modernization witnesses a decline in religious belief and practice and perhaps its ultimate disappearance. Kripal sometimes seems to echo the too easy “refutation” of “the death of God” by those who point to the resurgence of fundamentalisms and the rise of New Age spiritualities. In my understanding, these theses concerning secularization can be true quite apart from flows and ebbs in belief, for they describe the advent of a certain horizon within which belief must now orient itself, namely that of a purely immanent reality, as opposed to a nature transcended by a supernatural realm, exemplified by that of the natural sciences. It is this context that lays the ground for the very possibility of the appearance of the paranormal as such, since, before, there was only the miraculous or supernatural. It is therefore no accident that Kripal begins his history of the occult superhumanities in the Eighteenth century. It is only when the supernatural has become questionable, its home in a divine Creation being replaced by a new normal, that defined by the Scientific Revolution and the consequent changes in our self understanding by developments in astronomy (the Copernican Revolution), geology (the earth’s being more than, e.g., 6,000 years old), biology (the theory of evolution), and even theology (demythologization), that the need for a category of the paranormal can even come to be felt. It is therefore somewhat beside the point to protest that this purely secular worldview is by no means absolute and that an interest in and engagement with the miraculous and paranormal persist. Indeed, I sought to even strengthen the argument against a certain strong reading of the Secularization Thesis, when I was graciously allowed to ask Kripal if he saw the post-secular (a disillusionment with purely secular answers to how we should live and the recognition that the resources of religious tradition have neither been transcended nor exhausted), contemplative studies, or psychedelic studies as dovetailing into his imagined project for a superhumanities. (Kripal’s response was negative).
It’s at this point a distinction between two senses of “materialist” becomes important. Kripal perceives, I take it, that the spirit of the time is essentially “materialist”: regardless of the religious beliefs of the populace, the reigning worldview is natural scientific (“only matter is real”), technological, and technocratic, evidenced by the valorization of STEM in higher education. The humanities, by contrast, have been forced into an ever tighter corner, both by these ex cathedra forces (philistine capitalism) and by their restricting themselves to various parodies of the natural sciences (e.g., attempting to develop empirical, testable methodologies) or to merely “negative”, critical stances. In this view, the Other to Kripal’s imagined superhumanities is just this secular, materialist episteme for which only the physical and objective, or anonymous, third-person perspective, is real and true. However, there is another sense of “materialist”, that found in the expression “historical materialist”, whose viewpoint is summarized neatly in Marx’s early statement that “It is not consciousness of [human beings] that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” From this point of view, the ascendance of the secularism that displaces the religious and spiritual is not a “Mental Fight” (in Blake’s words) but a process better understood as related to wealth and power. The Age of Reason and its various atheisms didn’t arise because of some dialectic of spirit, some current in cultural conversation, but because of the decades of carnage wrought by religious wars in the wake of the Reformation, most notably the Thirty Years War. The natural sciences and the technologies they underwrite (and that later determine them) are not true because they are within certain contexts demonstrably so, but because they work; they fulfill the demand, in Jean-François Lyotard’s terms, that they perform, and under capitalism that performance is measured by profitability. It is no wonder, then, that STEM is valued and funded, but even those humanities whose results can be harnessed as means to ends of profit and power are also cultured: language departments that study the language of the moment’s enemy or psychology departments that help refine methods of enhanced interrogation… Kripal’s cultural adversary is not so much or only the “materialism” that identifies mental states with brain states but perhaps moreso the “materialism” of invested, social forces that values STEM for the power and profit these disciplines can bestow.
There is, more profoundly, a further distinction even more germane, I think, that between “meaning” and “meaning”. As Kripal outlines in opposing STEM to the humanities, the latter operate in an interpretive, hermeneutic realm of understanding, or “meaning”. STEM explains where the humanities understand. But Kripal, in his description of certain paranormal experiences, invokes, I argue, a different “meaning”, one more akin to the meaning granted by precisely life-orienting religious practice or philosophical belief or that experienced in a mystical state, whether spontaneous or entheogenic. It is precisely this meaningfulness that religion has traditionally addressed and that modern, secular society has no time for, pretending to grant every citizen a freedom of conscience in this regard while supplying only one real “material” possibility, consumption. But even this distinction, I don’t think, quite catches what Kripal is after.
If I understand him, he seems to want paranormal phenomena to be taken seriously, admitted to be as real as presently accepted natural phenomena and their nature and consequences for our conception of human being and nature to be investigated. His history of the humanities’ engagement with the paranormal intends to establish this as both an incipient and not unreasonable project. Because such phenomena are not strictly merely paraphysical, their study demands a kind of investigation both and neither natural scientific or hermeneutic (I remain uncertain on this point). The interdisciplinarity he sees demanded is based on the phenomena’s exceeding our present reduction of the mental to the material (in our “secular, material” worldview) or our failure to fundamentally grasp the mental and its relation to the material. The superhumanities are therefore just these superdisciplines that also open the way to conceiving of our own super-, rather than trans-, humanity (hence his preferred translation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch).
If my characterization of Kripal’s thesis is at all accurate, I have a number of reservations. First, the whole problem of matter and mind is posed in a conceptually coarse manner: it seems to rely on an essentially Cartesian distinction between two kinds of “stuff”, res extensa (physical, material stuff) and res cogitans (conscious, thinking stuff), a characterization of the problem that overlooks the more sophisticated descriptions and articulations of consciousness that begin with Kant and come down to more recent reflections by Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, and (perhaps) Markus Gabriel, a current of reflection not sufficiently appreciated by, for example, one of Kripal’s favoured thinkers in this department, Benardo Kastrup (such, at least, is my impression). Secondly, it strikes me as odd that Kripal, teaching in a university in Texas, seems not to remark a very vital community of believers in the miraculous, if not the paranormal, the various fundamentalist Christian sects in North America, with their firm belief in the immortality of the soul, visions, glossolalia, miraculous healings, possessions, and so forth. This group, along with its New Age cousin, is also characterized by a tendency to believe in the conspiracy theories that have recently disrupted political life in North America and public health measures globally. This broader and graver problem of an epistemic breach in Western societies, a loss of faith (!) in secular institutions, including (not always coherently) STEM, is not easily disentangled from a belief in or affirmation of paranormal phenomena, and it’s just such sociopolitical ramifications that call for serious, concerted reflection.
All that being said, Kripal’s project is broad and deep, articulated in nearly a dozen scholarly books, countless papers and presentations, and an entire career of research and teaching. What I remark here touches on a very restricted portion of that oeuvre. Nevertheless, I am moved to engage Kripal’s thinking in this lecture, both because it addresses matters of mutual interest and concern and because, if such matters are at all important, they demand to be taken with a certain seriousness, which is, at the very least, a gesture of intellectual, scholarly respect.
In the wake of the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, the organizers have released recordings of webinars aside from the plenary sessions that were publicly (if remotely) viewable during the conference itself. I’ve already shared my responses to Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address (here) and Whitley Strieber’s and Diana Pasulka’s plenary sessions (Strieber here and Pasulka here). In one of these webinars (here), as the conference YouTube channel puts it
Hussein Ali Agrama, associate professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Chicago, join[s] Jeffrey J. Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Studies in the Rice University School of Humanities, on Feb. 24, 2022, for the third of three webinars in advance of Archives of the Impossible conference…
Agrama’s and Kripal’s conversation is, by turns, compelling and exasperating, but particularly pertinent to one vector of thinking that goes on here at the Skunkworks (that Mike Cifone in a not dissimilar way questioned: see his comment to this post).
The conversation begins and ends with the academic response to the challenge presented by the UFO phenomenon. Agrama relates he is a ufological “newbie”, having begun researching the topic in 2015. Having concluded that “by all possible yardsticks of reality”, as they used to say, “Flying Saucers are real!”, he presented a conservative, probing talk on the topic at Berkeley, which was reacted to with overt anger and tactful, enthusiastic interest.
Aside from such social challenges to even fielding the question in academe is a methodological one. Along the lines of a fairly consistent sentiment expressed in all the publicly-viewable talks at the conference, Agrama remarks how the UFO phenomenon is mixed with what he terms “proximate enigmas”, implying that UFOs are an aspect of a more general problem calling for, what I’ve termed (though I hardly coined the expression), a Unified Field Theory of the Paranormal. The paranormal considered in this way exceeds the conceptual and investigatory tools of any one discipline, humanistic or natural scientific. Agrama and Kripal infer from this character of the problem that it demands we abandon these tools for, imaginably, new ones.
Here, the conversation touches on a proposal made here, that a phenomenon that does not fit existing categories calls forth new ones, along the lines Kant describes in his Critique of Judgement, i.e., a phenomenon that cannot be classified by means of what he termed determinative judgement demands it be grasped, like an aesthetic object, by means of our capacity to form reflective judgements. More radically, however, it strikes me Agrama and Kripal (due to a persistent historical shallowness) overlook the calls made by the Jena Romantics for an open-ended, experimental, encyclopedic interdisciplinarity, embodied after a fashion in the figure of Claude Levi-Strauss’ bricoleur and championed by Jacques Derrida and others of his moment.
Nevertheless, Agrama and Kripal probe deeper the “challenges to science” posed by the phenomenon. Agrama relates an anecdote from Jacques Vallée’s Messenger of Deception. Vallée and an intelligence agent are discussing the phenomenon; Vallée presses that it is a scientific problem, but the agent pushes back that it might be, instead, an intelligence problem. Agrama and Kripal focus on the difference between the two approaches but pass over a more essential one: however mysterious a matter, from a scientific point of view the matter lies open to inspection however much ingenuity and effort it might yet demand to be investigated, but from an intelligence point of view the matter is duplicitous, intentionally deceptive. One is tempted to observe at least that the sciences have in fact developed methods to observe and research intelligent beings, human and otherwise, eager to escape detection or dissimulate if observed, but the problem is deeper and arguably one of method. In the sciences, the object is in principle exoteric, open to investigation by anyone, provided they have access to the necessary training and instrumentation; the paranormal “object”, however, is esoteric, not given to being observed in controlled situations nor by just anyone; for whatever reasons only some human beings are given to observing the phenomena in question, whether by birth or fiat of the phenomenon itself. Alluding to the experience of one remote viewer and the way his training altered his quotidian perceptions, Agrama wonders whether one challenge to studying paranormal phenomena is not precisely a problem of perception. Whether or not an exoteric training might be developed to solve this problem remains an open question.
At this point the conversation becomes problematic. Kripal addresses a number of questions to Agrama, the first that of whether any research had been done into a causal relation between UFOs and religion. The matter of the stigmata of St. Francis is raised, but the best Agrama can do is point to Diana Pasulka’s American Cosmic. To any scholar however casually acquainted with the topic, Agrama’s answer is astonishing. Scholars of religion have researched the religious dimension of the phenomenon for decades. One can point to the classic study When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (first issued by the University of Minnesota Press, 1956), the 1995 anthology The Gods Have Landed, published by the State University of New York Press and edited by James R. Lewis (whose contributions to the field cannot be praised enough), Susan Palmer’s Aliens Adored: Raël’s UFO Religion (Rutger’s University Press, 2004), or Stephen C. Finley’s In and Out of this World: Material and Extraterrestrial Bodies in the Nation of Islam, forthcoming from Duke University Press, among many, many others. Moreover, the Christian reaction to the phenomenon is voluminous and the cognoscenti know the phenomenon emerged from a vaguely Theosophical matrix, e.g., in the books of George Adamski. Agrama somehow manages to pass over seventy-five years of relevant literature, primary and secondary.
More foundationally, Agrama and Kripal readily agree with the contention voiced during the conference itself that “the ground of being is not just the social”. This statement is deployed to at least two ends: first, as a criticism of dogmatic social constructivism in the social sciences and the humanities and, second, to open an ontological space for the paranormal. However, are our interlocutors ignorant of the more recent tradition that stems from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1926) that takes as its theme the question of the meaning of Being and the path Heidegger’s ontology was to take, let alone the older trajectory of thought that springs from Friedrich Jacobi and the Pantheism Controversy of the 1780s in Germany? If they weren’t, they’d know Jacobi had already pointed out the essential difference between nature as explicable by reason and science and the sheer, brute, opaque fact that there is anything at all to be explained, a matter pursued by others down to Heidegger, for whom Being denotes at least Jacobi’s “existence” as well as the fact that the world is intelligible at all, a spontaneous understandability grounded only in part by “society”.
Finally, it’s as if Agrama and Kripal had clairvoyantly read one of the more recent posts here Just what’s up at the Skunkworks (Skunkworksblog, that is)? for they explicitly attack those who would bracket the question of the being or nature of the phenomenon from its meanings. They say that such an approach would be laughable were it applied to, for example, radiation, that such a methodological strategy is “a cop out” to avoid the challenge to official ontology posed by the phenomenon. There are any number of responses. It is incumbent upon such believers to demonstrate the unquestionable reality of the phenomenon (which is hardly of the same status as “radiation”). As I observe in the post above, this is a debate that is exhausting as it is endless and irresolvable. Moreover, I state
anyone who has taken the lessons of deconstruction (namely those of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man) to heart will understand, maintaining an airtight opposition between strictly “negative” critique (that is, it does not posit any theses of its own about the facts of the world in opposition to the positions it scrutinizes) and the demand to take some position with regard to the truth of things is ultimately unsupportable.
In all fairness, this is a response I don’t expect Jeffrey Kripal, at least, to appreciate, if his very tenuous grasp of Derrida as evidenced in The Flip (see Chapter 4. The Symbols in Between) is anything to go by. Finally, I have and will argue at length that the reception of the phenomenon as “a visionary rumour” or “modern myth of things seen the sky” is compellingly revelatory of that collective unconscious called by historical materialists ideology, which arguably smooths the way for so-called “advanced society” to continue upon its eco- if not sui-cidal way. And concerning that reality I wager Agrama, Kripal, and I would hardly disagree.
Addendum: As readers might imagine, the matter of bracketing the meaning of the phenomenon from the question of its being, reality or nature is hardly a new one here. Related posts that develop the question at greater length if not depth are, the earliest and longest (Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO), a slightly abbreviated version of this first (On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”), and the most compressed version (Notes towards a prolegomenon to a future ufology…).
The Debrief has inaugurated a new series of articles, “Our Cosmic Neighbourhood”, and given the first word to Avi Loeb (to whom The Debrief seems a while back to have given carte blanche…). I don’t know if this new series will be penned exclusively by Loeb, but his latest contribution leaves me inclined—if not urged by a sense of duty to maintaining speculative sanity (let alone my own…)—to engage in a game of Whack-a-Loeb: What Dr. Loeb publishes at The Debrief I will smack down (as long as I have the patience: life is only so long…).
This missive is titled “Communicating with Extraterrestrials”. After a regrettably naive introductory gambit, about how “the war in Ukraine illustrates how difficult it is for earthlings to communicate with each other even when they share the same planet and communication devices”, Loeb, in characteristic SETI fashion, considers the possibilities that communication between earthlings and extraterrestrials might occur by means of either a technological artifact from perhaps a long-dead civilization or some electromagnetic signal. Regarding that first possibility, Loeb’s favoured, he speculates
A more advanced form of an indirect encounter with a messenger involves an AI system that is sufficiently intelligent to act autonomously based on the blueprint of its manufacturers. Since AI algorithms will be capable of addressing communication challenges among human cultures in the Multiverse, the same might hold in the actual Universe. In that case, we should be able to communicate at ease with a sufficiently advanced form of AI astronauts, because they would know how to map the content they wish to convey to our languages.
It is Loeb’s hope that this “encounter with extraterrestrial AI will be a teaching moment to humanity and lead to a more prosperous future for us all.”
There are, unsurprisingly, a number of problems with Loeb’s speculations, many of which find echo in his earlier Medium article, “Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests” I responded to here. In this earlier piece, Loeb seemed to overlook that communicating with an extraterrestrial life form or artifact thereof is, at least, a form of interspecies communication. Likewise, in this, his latest foray on the topic, he overestimates (as usual) the potential for AI (“AI algorithms will be capable of addressing communication challenges among human cultures in the [Metaverse]”) and underestimates the challenges of interspecies communication (“we should be able to communicate at ease with a sufficiently advanced form of AI astronauts, because they would know how to map the content they wish to convey to our languages”).
I don’t doubt the capacity for relatively functional AI translation, but such “translation” can happen only when the parties communicate in stereotypes, what literary theorists long back termed “the already written” of speech’s inescapable “intertextuality”. That is, translation software does not interpret or understand what the interlocutors actually say, but draws on a vast data bank of the already-written to find the most probable equivalence for any given string. The mindlessness of this procedure can, as a direct consequence of how it works, result in laughable mistranslations.
The root of this problem was posited already in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries by the founder of modern hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who observed that language could be characterized in at least two different ways, the grammatical and technical. By the former, he meant the impersonal rules that underwrite the possibility of any linguistic utterance’s being well-formed and hence not nonsensical in the first place, precisely the rules linguistics can quantify and programmers exploit to develop translation and speech- or text-productive software. However, there is also a creative aspect to speech, the “technical”, that both exceeds the already-written, being novel, and that underwrites the possibility of understanding a novel utterance if not any utterance in general (as a speaker must always make an educated guess not only about exactly what words are spoken but how they might be intended). As contemporary philosopher Robert Brandom so eloquently puts it: “What matters about us morally, and so, ultimately, politically is…the capacity of each of us as discursive creatures to say things that no-one else has ever said, things furthermore that would never have been said if we did not say them. It is our capacity to transform the vocabularies in which we live and move and have our being”. The “vocabularies” (the “already said”) that any such creative speech act will exceed and transform will, by the same token, transcend the capacity of the translation AI. The challenge of just such creative language use is especially acute in the case of tone, e.g., irony, which operates precisely in a space shared by the grammatical and technical, i.e., one and the same expression is used to mean its opposite. In this instance, the semiotic model of language-as-pure-syntax (Schleiermacher’s “grammatical” aspect) meets a limit, as Paul de Man so famously demonstrated in the opening chapter of his Allegories of Reading (1979).
If a linguistic AI by its very nature runs up against limits imposed by the nature of language itself, then how much moreso an AI produced by another species (as if the very idea were itself unproblematic…)? That is, at least translation software developed by a terrestrial programmer need only “translate” between human languages, but the problem of interspecies translation, as I sketch out in my earlier post on Loeb’s “xenophobic xenia”, is much more difficult (Diana Pasulka’s claims concerning the research of Iya Whiteley notwithstanding). I get the impression the very real challenges to this idea are not recognized by Loeb because of how he seems to conceive of language, writing, as he does, trusting his imagined “AI astronauts” would be able “to communicate at ease…because they would know how to map the content they wish to convey to our languages.” Many assumptions are packed into this all-too-casual claim. Is it the case in fact that a language “maps a content”, for example? Arguably not, such an idea belonging to the conception of language prior to the advent of the science of language, philology, in the mid-Eighteenth century. Moreover, without already possessing a knowledge of a human language, how would that AI find the equivalences for what it wished to convey? Loeb seems to think that natural languages are systems of or for more or less unproblematic representation, when in fact languages are intimately bound up with their pragmatic use in what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously termed “forms of life.” For this reason he once remarked “If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him,” a contention all the more applicable to an extraterrestrial organism, let alone its artifact. All of this assumes, of course, that Loeb’s AI astronaut seeks out Homo sapiens rather than some other species of organism it encounters on earth…
There is no little irony in Loeb’s opening his article by telling his reader he “was recently invited to attend an interdisciplinary discussion with linguists and philosophers, coordinated by the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard University [that] will revolve around the challenge of communicating with extraterrestrials as portrayed in the film Arrival.” I’m going to assume the film’s plot follows in its main lines those of the short story it is based on. What’s telling is that the film is not about communicating with extraterrestrials. The science-fiction scenario, as compelling as it is (imaginably why it’s adopted to orient the discussion Loeb has been invited to attend) is a literary device to present the plot’s theme, which is amor fati: the language of the aliens enables the protagonist to know in advance the daughter she will bear will die in childhood; nevertheless, in full knowledge of the pain she will bear, the protagonist chooses to affirm this fate. Moreover, that an important theme is also that of language, the story fulfills a (post)modern imperative for fiction, that it be reflexive, i.e., that it present and probe its own materiality. In a very important way, taking the story at face value is to completely misunderstand it, a sore failing for those who would aspire to understand and communicate with an utterly alien Other.
A quick web search will reveal, at least, a YouTube lecture he gave under the auspices of the Parapsychological Association, now viewable here. Interested parties can hear him present his ideas, again, at an upcoming lecture at University of British Columbia, which will be broadcast on Zoom 22 March 2021 4:00 p.m PST.
The abstract for the talk:
What would happen if we reimagined the humanities as the superhumanities? If we acknowledged and celebrated the undercurrent of the fantastic within our humanistic disciplines, entirely new cultural worlds and meanings would become possible. That is Jeffrey J. Kripal’s vision for the future—to revive the suppressed dimension of the superhumanities, which consists of rare but real altered states of knowledge that have driven the creative processes of many of our most revered authors, artists, and activists. In Kripal’s telling, the history of the humanities is filled with precognitive dreams, evolving superhumans, and doubled selves. The basic idea of the superhuman, for Kripal, is at the core of who and what the human species has tried to become over millennia and around the planet.
Kripal argues that we have to decolonize reality itself if we are going to take human diversity seriously. Toward this pluralist end, he engages psychoanalytic, Black critical, feminist, postcolonial, queer, and ecocritical theory to move beyond naysaying practices of critique toward a future that can embrace those critiques within a more holistic view that recognizes the human being as both a social-political animal as well as an evolved cosmic species that understands and experiences itself as something super.
I’ve made public my reservations, especially in regards to hints he’s dropped of his reading of Derrida in the book, and, from what what I heard in that YouTube lecture, his reading of Nietzsche is idiosyncratic if more defensible. Nevertheless, I, for one, will surely try to take this lecture in (and write about it, here!). And, of course, I look forward to reading his full treatment of the matter when his book appears in July…
You can read my response to the lecture, here.
Anyone who had a chance to catch Diana Pasulka’s plenary address at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference (my notes, here), will know that the promotion of her new book, tentatively titled Tethers into Contact, has begun. Where American Cosmic dealt, more or less, with certain technoscientific elites and their fascination with UFOs and related matters, this latest work shifts focus (as I understand it) to those researchers who are developing technologies that enable the exploration of nonlocal spaces, Pasulka’s working metaphor being James Cameron’s Avatar.
However, back in 2019, Q’ shared this crumb with Skunkworksblog that arguably spilled the beans on at least one version of this research…
SSP a “Blue Herring”
The Stargate Project: Swedenborg Protocols
C12H16N2 Spirit Molecule
C12H17N2O4P Spore Drive
Mantids in Hyperspaces
C13H16CINO Lilly’s K-Drive
White Hat ECCO Black Hat SSI
Soul Torus in visible spectrum
Techniques of the Sacred
The fourth anniversary of this blog came and went last 22 February. I can, I think, be forgiven for not marking the occasion: here, in Montreal, the pandemic dragged on; the nation’s capital was occupied by a Canadian version of insurrectionists (so Canadian, in fact, they couldn’t recognize themselves as insurrectionists); and Russia was gearing up for that invasion of Ukraine it launched before the end of the month.
What prompts today’s clarifications, though, is the surprising and not unwelcome interest in my recent commentaries on some of the plenary sessions delivered at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas: Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address (here) and those of Whitley Strieber and Diana Pasulka.
On the one hand, sckepticks (my coinage) of the UFO phenomenon take quickly and enthusiastically to those remarks of mine that appear to harmonize with their dismissal of the whole matter: my notice of Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity: The Best Kept Secret or my criticisms of aspects of the talks, above, usually their philological and scholarly lapses. Believers in the reality of the phenomenon, on the other hand, see me as a skeptic, too. Both, I claim, are mistaken, as would any believer who therefore takes it I side with them. Indeed, I would be especially disappointed if Kripal, Vallée, Strieber, or Pasulka reading my remarks (not for a moment that I imagine they have or do) took it I was crankily trolling them. And I am the first to admit that such confusion is a fault both the way my own interests wander and the relative subtlety of the more general stance I take here.
I started this blog in 2018 as a way of keeping myself honest. Since 1994 I’d been at work on an impossibly unwieldy project, an epic-length, poetic treatment of the UFO as, in Jung’s words, “a modern myth of things seen in the skies.” (Interested parties need only click on the ‘poems’ category to see some of the tentative results of this project). I had seen in a flash that year how the countless stories of UFOs and their pilots and their interactions with human beings composed a repressed critique of the technoscientific culture of the so-called advanced societies of the earth, a culture that at one and the same time served to revolutionize (scientifically and industrially…) human societies and has brought them to the brink of dissolution if not extinction. Here was a ready-made, generally familiar body of stories (contrast the recognizability of ‘UFO’ with “Prometheus’…) ready for the artist’s use.
In 1999 (I think it was) I presented this insight in the discourse of the sociology of religion at that year’s Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in the form of a paper co-authored with a friend, Dr Susan Palmer, “Presumed Immanent: The Raëlians, UFO Religions, and the Postmodern Condition.” Jaws dropped, the editor of Nova Religio buttonholed me immediately after the session, and the paper has since appeared, first, in that academic journal, then, in university syllabi, textbooks, and most recently The Cambridge Guide to New Religious Movements. Though unposed as such, the question that motivated that paper’s argument was that of the appeal of Raël’s message. The answer is that Raël’s “religion of science” is in its essential presuppositions perfectly harmonious with the ideology of technoscience that governs the world’s advanced societies and inspires the imagination of technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial societies among “UFO people” and SETI scientists, alike.
The tendency of this blog has been to articulate that original insight in an ever more varied and hopefully more profound and thorough-going a manner. The vector of thought here has been critique (as opposed to criticism, fault-finding, mockery, or dismissal, the mode of many UFO skeptics…). ‘Critique’ hearkens back to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant that sought not to answer the metaphysical questions of his day (Does the world have a beginning or is it eternal? Does the soul survive death?, etc.) but to query how it is possible we have the knowledge of nature, morals, and beauty we do. After Kant, especially with the advent and development of historical materialism down to this day, ‘critique’ has come to sometimes denote that analysis of the presuppositions and implications of some position or body of belief or knowledge, in a word, a critique of ideology, here, precisely, that one Jürgen Habermas posited as that of our modern European or Western society, technoscience.
So, for example, my unrelenting critique of the various pronouncements of Avi Loeb should not be taken as claiming these are in any way false, but as attempts to reveal what goes unthought and uninterrogated in these positions. Of course, imaginably, an argument might be made from these critiques about the tenability of his claims, but this is an avenue my thinking does not go down. In the same breath, however, as anyone who has taken the lessons of deconstruction (namely those of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man) to heart will understand, maintaining an airtight opposition between strictly “negative” critique (that is, it does not posit any theses of its own about the facts of the world in opposition to the positions it scrutinizes) and the demand to take some position with regard to the truth of things is ultimately unsupportable. Still, one, in all intellectual honesty and self-surveillance, can try….
In a more general sense, the project here, aside from publicizing the essential poetic project, is to bracket the question of the being (nature or reality) of the phenomenon to better bring into view its meaning. In this regard, the general stance most often taken here is phenomenological, in the sense first given that expression by Edmund Husserl and those who went on to develop his method of “philosophy as a rigorous science”. The dispute over the reality and nature of the phenomenon has proven exhausting and fruitless since 1947, and it’s one I consistently eschew. However, the significance or meaning of the phenomenon is an infinitely rich field of research for the more sociologically-minded, an argument I have made with greater force and at greater length, here.
For all that, I do sometimes criticize, but let it be noted not in the spirit of mere negation or dismissal, but precisely because I take the criticized and the matter under consideration seriously. This ethic is especially so in the case of more scholarly discourses, like those, for example, of Jeffrey Kripal or Diana Pasulka. I don’t demand a cold-blooded, heavy, Nineteenth century Teutonic demeanor (as doubtless some readers here hear me assuming) but I do have certain standards of precision, exactitude, and scholarship I can’t bear to see unfulfilled. Because what’s at stake is a grasp of the character and destiny of techno-industrial society, it is arguable that any lapse in such standards is understandably, at least, irritating. And let’s remember that “irritability” (“Does it react if you poke it with a stick?”) is a sign of life.
So, however gratifying it is to be read and, after a fashion, appreciated, I beg readers to remember that if they think the posts here are engaging in the never-ending for-and-against concerning the reality or nature of UFOs or UAP, likely something subtler and, hopefully, more profound is at work.
With this commentary on Diana Pasulka’s plenary talk I write my final post on the Archives of the Impossible Conference. You can read my take on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address here and my reflections on Whitley Strieber’s talk here.
Diana Pasulka’s talk was meagre, for anyone already familiar with her American Cosmic and who has followed her career since, being, as it was, an overview of precisely this work, helpfully bringing it into focus in a way that contextualizes her present research.
She began with a resumé of the years 2017 to 2021, punctuated by her submitting American Cosmic to Oxford University Press and the U.S. government’s official confirmation of the reality of UAP, prepared for by, first, the 2017’s New York Time articles, then growing media interest. In the context of this most recent official confirmation of the reality of the phenomenon, she spotlights “the visible college” of researchers—Jeffrey Kripal, Brenda Denzler, Gary Nolan (“James” in American Cosmic), Karla Turner, Jacques Vallée, Whitley Strieber, and Greg Bishop, among others—before dovetailing to the main topic of her lecture.
The mention of a visible college leads easily to a discussion of the “Invisible College”, in both senses: of that one described in American Cosmic and that other, historical forerunner that inspired J. Allen Hynek to recoin the expression that Jacques Vallée later used as a book title. This original college, exoterically understood to refer to what became the Royal Society, Pasulka links to Renaissance esotericism, claiming that some members of this original Invisible College were initiates of the Rosicrucian order. (The fuzzy way this claim is made and developed—characteristic of Pasulka’s discourse—leaves one wondering if she had consulted Frances Yates’ authoritative The Rosicrucian Enlightenment…).
This introduction of esotericism brings us to the heart of her talk, the contention that some researches, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, such as the late Kary Mullis, American Cosmic‘s “Tyler”, and Jack Parsons, all used or use various esoteric practices to which they attribute their ideas, discoveries, and breakthroughs, said practices being a means whereby they access some nonlocal realm of pre-existing knowledge, comparable to the Akashic Records of Theosophy. Pasulka, somewhat frustratingly, offers no formal example of what these practices might be, but adds that corollaries include entheogens (as proposed by Aldous Huxley), and, most importantly, technology, the focus of her latest research, including the figure of Iya Whiteley.
That Pasulka’s research has revealed a kind of spontaneous, shared spiritual practice and perhaps family of beliefs among the STEM elite is surely curious and a promising vein of research for a religious studies scholar. What is frustrating is Pasulka’s methodological tact. As a scholar of religion, like the ethnologist, one does not judge the subjects of one’s study, but Pasulka often leaves one with the impression that she has, as they used to say, “gone native”, that she actually shares the beliefs of those she studies. As frustrating, and perhaps not unrelated, is her not presenting either a history of these ideas or competing hypotheses. For instance, speculations concerning the reality of the known go back to the philosophy of mathematics at the turn of the century, when the question of the nature of the certainty of mathematics split thinkers between those who attributed it to mathematics’ being a purely syntactic system and those who posited that numbers were “real”, in the manner of Platonic Forms. Given that she is studying what more mundanely might be termed a species of the scientific, creative method, the means whereby scientists come up with ideas (a famous example is the dream that led to the discovery of the form of the benzene molecule), one might rightly wonder what other historians and philosophers of science might have to say on the matter.
For my part, I am struck by a kind of naive “romanticism” in this fascination with the figure of the scientist-as-hero, as if scientific discovery is the work of lone genii, apart from the society that underwrites their lives and research as a necessary condition, and independent of the arduous labour of actual, often fruitless research and subsequent confirmation of experimental findings. As unquestionably interesting as Pasulka’s subject of research is, once it’s scrutinized in this more thorough-going, comprehensive manner, its significance for, at least, the history and philosophy of science is acutely contextualized. And such considerations are apart from the more pressing matter of the need to reflect on the way technoscience frames its object (as Heidegger reminds us in his Essay Concerning Technology), an urgent question in the midst of an ecological crisis and under the cloud of the threat of nuclear war….
In his remarks opening the Archives of the Impossible conference, Jeffrey Kripal references his work on articulating the “superhumanities”, the title of his forthcoming book. Curious, I followed up what Kripal might have had to say about this project and found a lecture he gave on the topic under the auspices of The Parapsychological Association.
At around the 8:20 mark, Kripal refers to “Jacques Derrida’s late conversion to telepathy as the ultimate deconstruction of the subject.” I have grave misgivings that in this instance Kripal, along with George Hansen, might well have misread Derrida’s brain-cracking piece, “Telepathy”, now collected in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 1. To put the matter in nuce, “Telepathy” is not about telepathy in the parapsychological sense, nor does its composition and belated publication mark a “conversion”.
“Telepathy” is a collection of ten, dated texts, from 9 July 1979 to 15 July 1979. Derrida himself makes clear in the first endnote that these ten texts were intended to be included in the first section of The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, whose first section, “Envois” is composed of the same kind of short texts, dated 3 June 1977 to 30 August 1979, which, Derrida tells us, might be considered “the remainders of a recently destroyed correspondence” (3). It’s not that Derrida essays the topic of telepathy as a paranormal phenomenon, but that “Telepathy” is a fragment of a larger text, composed itself of fragments, which (as is Derrida’s wont) probe or essay ‘telepathy’, especially as it is articulated by Freud (See note 7 to “Telepathy” in Psyche), as part of Derrida’s larger deconstructive project to think and write about language, writing, and literature in novel terms (e.g., telepathy) not indebted to the “metaphysical” inheritance, to (re)think ‘telepathy’ as “inextricably linked to the question of writing” and “as a name for literature as a discursive formation”, all persistent themes in Derrida’s philosophical oeuvre.
It may very well be I am jumping the gun here. We’ll have to wait for Kripal’s book to be published, as I, for one, lack the clairvoyance needed to determine if my misgivings are justified….
Here, I continue my commentary on the plenary sessions of Rice University’s Archives of the Impossible conference. My notes on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address can be read, here, while those on Diana Pasulka’s plenary address are viewable, here.
Friday, I missed Leslie Kean’s plenary talk, “Physical Impossibilities: From UFOs to Materializations”, but I was eager to catch Whitley Strieber’s, not only because of his reputation, but moreso because he has co-authored a book with Jeffrey Kripal, The Super Natural.
Strieber, being a writer, delivered a relatively eloquent talk, in a mellifluous, cadenced voice. He began, after a series of gracious, thoughtful acknowledgements, confirming the notion Jeffrey Kripal laid out yesterday, that the paranormal is a unified field, underlining the unity of the Visitor experience and the mystery of death, stressing the phenomenon demands to be approached “holistically” and interdisciplinarily.
The body of his discourse was the presentation and analysis of one of the many letters he and his wife received in the wake of Strieber’s publishing Communion, a large number of which are now housed in the Archives of the Impossible. Strieber proposed to read the story the letter related according to the myth of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur: the role of Theseus is played by the family who experience an encounter with the Visitors; the Labyrinth is our dark, confused world; the Minotaur is fear and anger; Ariadne is the consciousness behind and controlling the Visitor experience; and the thread, the process of human perception, the way it domesticates the wildly strange, tempering fear with curiosity. He managed to unfold the letter’s account according to his proposed schema in an easy to follow manner, however unconvincing….
What struck me was Strieber’s stressing how the Visitor experience “is a communication of a kind”, related to the myths of all cultures. Indeed, it’s because Strieber perceives this link between the experience and myths that he ventures to read the letter the way he does, going as far as to claim that an acquaintance with myth is necessary to understand Contact and “the grammar of Communion.” In this regard, Strieber seems to echo Vallée’s contention in his keynote address, that the phenomenon “is not a system but a metasystem”. Someone not unfamiliar with the developments of last century’s literary theory might say it is a language (myth).
Ironically, however much Strieber is at pains to stress the pertinence of our mythological inheritance in understanding Contact, his own acquaintance with the myth he deploys is weak. It’s not the case that Ariadne saves Theseus from the Minotaur by guiding him out of the Labyrinth with her thread, but that her thread enables him to navigate the Labyrinth in order to slay the Minotaur and emerge again. Strieber is correct that Theseus abandons Ariadne after his exploit, but says that she weds Dionysus “the god of joy” and thereby becomes holy, a becoming holy (whole, complete), Strieber maintains, being the “inner aim of Contact”. But by what warrant does Strieber identify Dionysus/Bacchus with “joy”?…
Not only does he betray only a loose acquaintance with the myth he would employ, but, I would argue, he confuses myth with myths. That is, if the Visitor/Contact phenomenon operates at a mythological level, from the point of view of structural mythology, it is not because of how its various narratives might echo other narratives, but because of its structure, which is that of myth. Myth, like language, is a form not a substance. He does seem to unconsciously grasp this approach, when he draws attention to various actions in the letter he analyzes (and, no!, he does not “deconstruct” it!) when he remarks various actions that occur along the vertical axis: one Visitor leaps from a water silo, they appear in the trees, the family ascends to the second story of their home to get a better view of the beings, etc., an observation typical of a structural analysis of myth or narrative. Strieber’s exegesis of the letter is illuminating but, ironically, despite the allegorical machinery he brings to bear….
One must wonder, too, if he were present during Vallée’s presentation and his warnings concerning the truths intelligence agencies relate, as Strieber at one point emphasized how the U.S. government recently admitted that the leaked Tic-Tac and Gimbal videos depicted vehicles of unknown origin….
So, like Jacques Vallée’s keynote address, Whitley Strieber’s contribution, though smoothly delivered and containing some provocative insights, fails to persuade because of, ironically, its weak grasp of essential aspects of its own argument, here the very myth he would use to construct his discourse, if not mythology as such itself….
This weekend, March 3-6, Rice University is hosting a conference to inaugurate its Archives of the Impossible. Like hundreds of others, I have Zoomed and will Zoom in to catch some of the plenary sessions held during the event. What follows, here, are my impressions of and thoughts on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address. (You can read my notes on Whitley Strieber’s talk, here, and Diana Pasulka’s, here). As my response is drawn from what I noted down during their talks, what I remember, and what I’ve slept on, it will be schematic and idiosyncratic but, hopefully, no less substantive for all that…
Opening Remarks: Jeffrey Kripal, “On Radar and Revelation: Connecting the Dots (and One Another)”
For all its humble brevity, Kripal’s address commencing the conference’s proceedings didn’t lack in insight or imagination.
Connecting the dots in his talk’s title, he observed “It’s all connected”, namely all those phenomena generally collected under the concept of the paranormal: UFOs, Near Death Experience, Psi phenomena, ghosts and hauntings, cryptids, etc. With this idea, by pleasing synchronicity, Kripal addressed some recent thoughts ventured here with regard to UFOs and ghosts and the essential, perhaps irresolvable, mystery of Fortean phenomena. This idea of a “Unified Field Theory of Paranormal Phenomena” is hardly new, but it seems somehow noteworthy Kripal opens with this idea…
In my reflections on the social significance of the Fortean, I propose that “the Fortean realm functions as a critique, a marking of limits or boundaries, to a form of knowledge whose demonstrable power at the same time puffs it with a monomania that causes it to claim a monopoly on knowledge.” Kripal, too, with reference to the scholarship of Stephen Finley, observes all too quickly that the paranormal plays a role in society. I’ve touched on this very compelling topic, how, on the one hand, the paranormal reveals “a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation,” while, on another, the UFO mythology is appropriated by more reactionary forces in society. The place or function of the paranormal in “Western” society, at least, is, as I write above, a most compelling topic, not without pertinence to the social phenomena of populism and the loss of faith in scientific and cultural institutions….
Kripal also touched on our shared reality, as a “story” or “myth” of “secularism”, that unreflected, unquestioned, average-everyday “real” where most of us live our lives, what some historical materialists term “ideology”. For him, the paranormal throws that assumed reality into radical question, a feature not unrelated to the epistemic social struggles mentioned, above. Kripal’s notion, here, strikes me as a little belated; I’d be surprised if he were unacquainted with the scholarship around post-secularism, a concept coined by Jürgen Habermas and developed by Jacques Derrida (however much it was first articulated by ex-pat poet and scholar Peter Dale Scott…), the thesis that, counter to the “Secularization thesis” (that in the face of ever more powerful natural scientific explanations for phenomena and the concomitant growth in technological power over nature religion would of itself wither away…), religion has seen a resurgence due, in part, to its answering personal and social needs scientific institutions and secular society cannot….
With regard to this real, the cosmos articulated by the natural sciences, Kripal presents a startling image, that of Day and Night, how the light of science (if not reason) illuminates one aspect of reality, the other being obscured by that same light, whose relative absence is the condition for this other aspect to come into view…. I think Kripal makes a very important point here, whose implications are both far-reaching and profound, as much as those concerning the social role of the paranormal. Kripal’s analogy has further implications than those he draws out. On the one hand, it reminds us the matrix of the natural sciences is unreason or the irrational, religion in ancient Greece and magic in the European Renaissance (readers of F. M. Cornford and Frances Yates will know what I’m talking about, here), and, on the other, the way the irrational shadows rationality. At the same time, especially with regard to the social significance of the paranormal, this line of thought leads to the atrocity museum of unreason, whether the dismemberment of Orpheus or Cadmus by the followers of Bacchus or the enthusiasm of the Thirty Years War or the witch trial…
It is most fitting, therefore, in view of the challenge to science and consensus reality posed by the paranormal that Kripal should finish his talk with a nod to his forthcoming book on the “superhumanities“. When he first mentioned this idea, in the context of his talk, I imagined he referred to a renewed interdisciplinarity, of the the kind that inspired the modern university and much-resisted efforts in the 1970s (resistance coming from what Jacques Derrida termed “academic apartheid”…). On the one hand, he does seem to propose at least a dilation and reconfiguration of the humanistic disciplines, while, on the other, he explores “a long repressed or forgotten history of the humanities that orbits around the experience and theorization of the superhuman.” In this latter regard, along with his invocation of the knowledge of the “night”, and the attention he has given to Nietzsche and his Übermensch, I must wonder if Kripal isn’t playing with fire. We’ll have to wait until his book appears in July…
Jacques Vallée, “The Four Garments of Aletheia: Reality Management and the Challenge of Truth”
It is always a pleasure to hear Jacques Vallée speak; despite the protestations of certain sckepticks and the catastrophes of his recent collaborative books (Wonders in the Sky, with Chris Aubeck, and especially Trinity: The Best Kept Secret, with Paola Leopizzi Harris), Vallée is no woo-meister. His keynote address, aside from a slow start, was eloquent, learned (in its way), and impassioned, however many grave reservations I have about details of its argument…
Vallée organizes his discourse around the four “garments” or guises of Aletheia, the Greek goddess of truth. (I was relieved he, under the influence of Diana Walsh Pasulka, hadn’t attempted to deploy philosopher Martin Heidegger’s famous treatment of truth-as-aletheia…). The four guises of Aletheia are religious tradition, the historical record, “intelligence” (as in “intelligence agency”, e.g. the CIA), and mathematics.
He points to the world’s religious traditions and the historical record to evidence interactions with nonhuman intelligences (e.g., gods, angels, djinn, etc.) are nothing new, contextualizing modern UFO and encounter reports, a thesis well-known from his Passport to Magonia. However (and this is puzzling, given his hobnobbing with scholars of religion Pasulka and Kripal, among others), his understanding of scriptural hermeneutics is impoverished and his notion of history is ahistorical (i.e., it does not include temporally-inflected cultural difference).
His primary example from religious tradition is the Epiphany, the visit of the three magi to the baby Jesus. He raises the question of just what heavenly body the magi followed, a matter investigated by, among others, Carl Sagan. In a way, he resolves the issue with reference to an obscure text that describes the luminous body that guided the magi as a globe containing an infant. He posits this latter version as evidence for premodern encounters analogous to close encounters reported since 1947. But to ask after the physical identity of the Star of Bethlehem is akin to asking for a meteorological or other explanation for the colour of the sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Neither the biblical tale nor the painting are in the first instance representations. The “truth” of the tale of the Magi is that the Christ child is destined to be the saviour of Jew and Gentile alike; the Magi are led to the manger by a star, because they were, among other things, astrologers; their gifts are likewise symbolic: gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for mortality. To take the biblical story as a literal, historical account is to completely misread it….
Vallée’s historical evidence fares no better and for the same reason. Following the lead of Diana Pasulka this time, he offers the story of Saint Francis’ receiving the stigmata as a narrative with modern analogues, namely, luminous phenomena, nonhuman entities, paralysis and other physical effects, and telepathic communication. Vallée cribs his version from the account of Brother Leo, an eyewitness to the event. Vallée relates that before a luminous phenomenon, Francis is stricken prostrate, muttering in conversation with an unseen interlocutor, before receiving the famous stigmata from beams of light projected from the luminous phenomenon. However, Vallée also relates how Leo tells us Francis raised his hand three times. That (according to Vallée) Leo records so symbolic a detail (“three” being a charged number in Catholicism…) should be taken as a sign that, like the biblical story of the magi, Leo’s “report” of Francis’ vision needs be read for its rhetorical before its literal import. Again, Vallée has fallen prey to failing to grasp how narratives from distant times and cultures demand a philological and hermeneutic labour as a propadeutic to their interpretation. Ironically, Vallée seems to have failed to apply the observations he makes at the beginning of his address that “there is no absolute truth”, i.e., in the language of information theory, no truth is context independent.
Vallée’s discussion of the remaining two guises of Aletheia are, to an extent, less controversial. Under the rubric of “intelligence” he warns us that no UFO report after 1975, and certainly not after 1985, can be taken at face value, given the way the phenomenon has been exploited by national security agencies of various countries for various ends. In this regard, he makes a tactful nod to much of the material in his Revelations. His discussion of Aletheia-as-mathematics is a mix of the (relatively) well-known and the iconoclastic if not idiosyncratic. He seeks to disabuse us of the concept of mathematics as a field of indisputable knowledge and truth, reminding us, first, of the crises and controversies in the philosophy of mathematics and logic at the beginning of the Twentieth century, especially Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Any student of philosophy in the English-speaking world will likely already be well-apprised of this history. He goes on, however, to cite the research of an information scientist whose name eluded me, who has argued somewhat paradoxically that, on the one hand, because of these and subsequent developments in the discipline, mathematics is now an empirical, experimental science, rather than an a priori one, while, on the other, that the future of mathematics-as-information-theory promises to illuminate the nature of mind, intelligence, consciousness, the origin of life on earth and its evolution (!).
But putting aside these problematic arguments, Vallée did make one remarkable claim, though he did not explain or develop it, namely, that “the phenomenon is not a system but a metasystem.” If he is using the prefix “meta-” in the same sense as “metalanguage” (a language about language) rather than “metaphysics” (“after” physics), then he is taking a position I have touched on, namely that the phenomenon might not be approached as it presents itself but as a sign system. That is, just like the pictographs that compose hieroglyphics are not pictures of objects but symbols that function as parts of a system, so too the drama of the UFO or entity encounter event is not what it appears to be but points beyond itself to some other significance. Perhaps this is what the aliens famously encountered by Herbert Schirmer meant when they told him they wanted human beings to believe in them, but not too much, a case remarked by Vallée himself in his address.
There remains one ironic omission that haunts Vallée’s presentation. Each time he introduced a new guise of Aletheia, he did so in the manner of a film director: “Cue Aletheia, dressed in the tricolor…”. Unconsciously, Vallée is gesturing to another, unremarked guise of truth, truth as art. It’s this mode of truth that undermines his examples of truth-as-religion and truth-as-history, as his reading of the tale of the magi and the story of Francis’ stigmata overlooks the art of rhetoric and narrative that articulate these stories. That the phenomenon is both played with (by Aletheia-as-intelligence) and plays with us (“The phenomenon has a sense of humour”), the UFO or anomalous phenomenon might fruitfully be thought as an aesthetic phenomenon as much as a trans- if not metaphysical one. In any event, the paranormal demands, as Vallée exhorts his audience at the end of his address, bold theorizing and a capacity to dream….
I don’t know Avi Loeb’s reputation among his fellow astrophysicists, but when he ventures into the field of more general culture the results are risible.
In Loeb’s latest article for The Debrief, if one weren’t to read too carefully, one might think Loeb is merely arguing that extraplanetary exploration is best accomplished by artificially-intelligent probes rather than human astronauts. However, closer inspection reveals his position is both bolder and more questionable.
He begins his article by posing the question: “Once humanity begins sending its assets to other planets, what should be our goal?”, which he answers as follows:
Fundamentally, there are two choices: A) Use artificial intelligence (AI) astronauts to plant seeds of scientific innovation in other locations, so that intelligence is duplicated and not at risk of extinction. B) Make numerous copies of what nature already produced on Earth.
Apart from the reservations the sensitive reader might have about the wording of the question itself (e.g., the ideological connotation of ‘assets’ and the too-easy equation of ‘humanity’ with some “we”), the logic of the “fundamental choices” is not at all clear. The AI “astronauts” (why the personification? By what warrant?) of A) are not a “goal” but a means to an end (goal), which is to ensure “intelligence is duplicated and not at risk of extinction” (a clause whose rhetoric we’ll return to), while B) is presented as an end (goal) in itself. The brows are already furrowing. Probes have been sent to other planets, moons, asteroids, and comets in the solar system and human astronauts may well likely follow in the name of scientific exploration and ultimately exploitation of these same bodies for raw materials or colonization, but this is not one of Loeb’s “goals” for sending “assets to other planets”. On the one hand, the status quo speaks against there being “fundamentally…two choices”; on the other, it is not at all clear prima facie what Loeb’s two “fundamental” choices are or how they relate to each other.
Choice A) does seem relatively clear: sending AI probes to other planets is a means of proliferating “intelligence” both numerically and spatially to better insulate it from extinction. However, is B) (presumably disseminating “copies of what nature already produced on Earth”) an end in itself or a means to an end, namely a biological analogue to the strategy proposed by A)? If it is an end in itself, who has proposed it? Science fiction has surely imagined human beings colonizing earth-like worlds and transplanting, as it were, earth plants and animals as part of that project. Closer to the realm of real technological speculation, geoengineers have proposed using earth organisms, single-celled and vegetable, to terraform a planet. Both these ideas, however, are means to the exploration and exploitation of offworld locations. Loeb must have something else in mind…
By “what nature already produced on Earth” is Loeb referring to human beings, so that B) is a version of A): by colonizing other planets humanity better insures its long term survival? If so, Loeb is thinking like Elon Musk, who has argued that a Mars colony would precisely function to preserve humanity in the event of its extinction on earth. On the one hand, Loeb does seem to equate “what nature already produced on Earth” with homo sapiens, writing “We are emotionally attracted to B, because we are attached to ourselves”. However, on the other, he continues: “we like who we are and imagine that if we duplicate natural selection in an Earth-like environment something as special as us will result. Of course, natural selection holds no such promise.” Now, a migraine seems in the offing. Who imagines “that if we duplicate natural selection in an Earth-like environment something as special as us will result”? Not our aforementioned geoengineers: terraforming is proposed as a way to render a planet habitable for human beings, not as a way to evolve some humanoid species. Why exactly—to what end—the “asset” we should send to other planets should be “what nature already produced on Earth” remains unclear….
Whatever the precise significance of B) (an imprecision not inconsequential), Loeb is much clearer as to why he is “all in favor of option A for AI.” He submits that
“Choice A…promotes new systems that are more advanced and adaptable to very different environments. If evolution is supervised by AI systems with 3D printers, it could be more efficient at identifying optimal solutions to new challenges that were never encountered before,” and “[AI] has a higher likelihood of survival in the face of natural disasters, such as loss of planetary atmospheres, climate changes, meteorite impacts, evolution of the host star, nearby supernova explosions, or flares from supermassive black holes.”
I’m uncertain by what warrant exactly Loeb claims that any existing or realistically potential AI probe is “more advanced” than a human being or other terrestrial organism, however much such a probe might well be more adaptable (being able to function in an unearthly atmosphere, like that of Mars, for example). Setting aside for the moment what exactly he might mean by “evolution…supervised by AI systems with 3D printers”, Loeb is clearly fudging when he writes said AI “could be more efficient at identifying optimal solutions to new challenges that were never encountered before” (it could just as easily be stumped by these unencountered conditions) and that “[AI] has a higher likelihood of survival in the face of natural disasters, such as loss of planetary atmospheres, climate changes, meteorite impacts, evolution of the host star, nearby supernova explosions, or flares from supermassive black holes.” It’s believable a probe might very well survive the “loss of planetary atmospheres” or “climate changes” (depending upon their respective causes and concomitant conditions) but less that it would emerge unscathed from “nearby supernova explosions or flares from supermassive black holes.” That Loeb places such faith in the capacities of some imagined AI betrays a technofetishism that underwrites his whole approach to this and related topics…
However questionable his arguments in support of A), his reasons for dismissing B) are no less problematic. Even his rhetoric is flawed. Where ‘A’ stands for ‘AI’, ‘B’ stands for ‘Barbaric’, as he explains at length:
The second approach is suitably labeled B since it was adopted by barbarian cultures throughout human history. Its brute-force simplicity in making copies of existing systems could lead to dominance by numbers, but its main weakness is that it is vulnerable to new circumstances that previous systems cannot survive. For example, the dinosaurs were not smart enough to use telescopes capable of alerting them to the dangers of giant space rocks like Chicxulub. Also, the ideas offered by Ancient Greek philosophy survived longer than the Roman Empire despite the latter’s military might in conquering new territories.
Before addressing his Wikipedia-derived concept of the “barbarian” let’s address some of this paragraph’s other claims. If we compare the staying-power of “brute-force simplicity” to complexity with reference to being “vulnerable to new circumstances”, is it the case complex societies, for example, are more resilient? Arguably not. However much their sophistication might enable them to build killer-asteroid detecting telescopes, the very complexity of such societies renders them less resilient to “new circumstances”. In all honesty, how does Loeb imagine the next hundred years to play out for the earth’s “advanced societies” in the face of endlessly unfolding and increasingly dire climactic changes (changes both of their own doing and well-known, understood, and, thereby, preventable) let alone the acutely-present threat of nuclear war (I write this in the first week of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine)? Of course, Loeb is contrasting the “brute simplicity” characteristic of the barbarian to the flexible sophistication of his imagined AI astronauts. What is less contentious is Loeb’s apparent ignorance of European intellectual history. Greek philosophy survived into the Renaissance when its rare, extant texts were collected due, first, to its being preserved by being translated into Latin, spreading throughout the Roman Empire and later Christianity, and, second, being translated and commented on by Arabic philosophers, whose translations were then rendered back into Latin. That is to say, the Roman Empire, its conquest of Greece and assimilation of its culture, the Empire’s geographical extent, and its being the foundation for the Christianization of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, was the material condition for the survival of Greek philosophy down into the present.
If we turn, then, to Loeb’s deployment of ‘barbaric’ even more flaws are revealed. Perhaps motivated by wanting to seem or be user-friendly, Loeb hyperlinks his article to the Wikipedia entry for the term in question, which begins
A barbarian (or savage) is someone who is perceived to be either uncivilized or primitive. The designation is usually applied as a generalization based on a popular stereotype; barbarians can be members of any nation judged by some to be less civilized or orderly (such as a tribal society) but may also be part of a certain “primitive” cultural group (such as nomads) or social class (such as bandits) both within and outside one’s own nation.
‘Barbarian’ at root is a derisory expression rooted in the Greek βάρβαρος, used (at least) for all non-Greek speaking people, because their languages sounded (to Greek ears) like the barking of dogs (“Bar! Bar!”). Hence, even the Wikipedia entry Loeb so helpfully links makes clear in its first sentence that the term is used to denote “someone who is perceived to be either uncivilized or primitive” (my emphasis). Anyone familiar with the peoples the Greeks and Romans so disparaged (Egyptians, Persians, Medes, Celts, etc.) will know they were hardly “uncivilized”; moreover, anyone acquainted with anthropology since, e.g., Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, will know all talk of “primitive” peoples has, thankfully, been tossed in the trash can of history. Given the etymology of the term and the facts of human culture, it is surely eyebrow-raising that a man of Loeb’s education could write about ” barbarian cultures throughout human history” (my emphasis) and their “brute-force simplicity” (my emphasis). Indeed, one could ask for no better counter to Loeb’s use of the term than the brute fact that the longest-lived, continuous culture on earth is that of the Australian Aborigine…
If ‘barbarian’ connotes a certain inarticulateness or linguistic clumsiness, then the rhetoric of Loeb’s article is arguably barbaric. Consider, again, Loeb’s two fundamental choices: “A) Use artificial intelligence (AI) astronauts to plant seeds of scientific innovation in other locations, so that intelligence is duplicated and not at risk of extinction. B) Make numerous copies of what nature already produced on Earth.” Notice the tacit (con)fusion of the vocabularies for what the ancient Greek philosophers distinguished as φύσις (physis, nature) and τέχνη (art, or craft): AI probes are (figuratively) “astronauts”, that “plant seeds” of (artificial) “intelligence”; “nature” produces “copies” of organisms, like (in the next paragraph) “an industrial duplication line” or, imaginably, a 3D printer. Even Loeb’s joke about dinosaurs “not smart enough to use telescopes capable of alerting them to the dangers of giant space rocks” in his discussion of barbaric and civilized cultures blurs the line between nature (dinosaurs) and culture (barbarians) for comic effect, but simultaneously dehumanizes the barbarian.
These stylistic moves might be glossed as mere rhetorical ploys (as if Jacques Derrida hadn’t unmasked precisely the apparent innocence of such “mere rhetoric”…), but the same pattern is discernible in what seem more serious propositions. “AI systems could be viewed as our technological kids and a phase in our own Darwinian evolution, as they represent a form of adaption to new worlds beyond Earth,” writes Loeb. “Adopting survival tactics by AI systems in these alien environments might be essential for tailoring sustainable torches that carry our flame of consciousness there.” In all seriousness, a piece of AI can be thought our technological child no more than a chipping tool of our distant, evolutionary ancestor is a child of theirs. Loeb seems to believe that the “intelligence” of an AI is or might be of the same kind as that of human beings or other living organisms, and that this “intelligence” is somehow equivalent to consciousness. That an AI probe as a technological artifact is evidence of the instrumental reason necessary to invent and construct is goes without saying, but the identification of AI as (self)conscious intelligence is unwarranted de facto and arguably de jure. Loeb’s technofetishism finds its extremest expression when he writes that our fundamental choice “is between taking pride in what nature manufactured […]over 4.5 billion years on Earth through unsupervised evolution and natural selection (B) or aspiring to a more intelligent form of supervised evolution elsewhere (A)” (my emphasis). Here, the hubris that inspires plots of unbridled engineering of life on earth finds its expression, the presumption that natural science as the knowledge of and subsequent power over nature is sufficient in itself to supervise and guide evolution in “a more intelligent form” than the “unsupervised” process that presumably gave rise to life on earth and shaped its development.
Surely space exploration (and its motivations) and the survival of life, human and otherwise, are serious matters demanding ever more urgently to be addressed, interrogated, and, in their own right, explored. But to rise to the challenge of the world “we” (who?) have made, no less surely do we need to draw on all the powers and inheritance of our species, putting that fetishization of the kind of thinking that underwrites both such speculations and the mortally-urgent dilemmas we have come to face in its proper place.
In February 2022 the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg, Germany, became (likely) the first university to officially adopt the scientific (in German, wissenschaftlich) research of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). As the chairman of the university’s Interdisciplinary Research Center for Extraterrestrial Science (IFEX) Hakan Kayal, professor of aerospace engineering, says, “We would like to promote the UAP-research branch into an interdisciplinary framework, carry out our own projects and seek cooperation with relevant institutions and authorities, such as the Max Planck Society, the German Aerospace Center, the Federal Aviation Office or the German Weather Service.” However venerable the University of Würzburg, its sanctioning UAP research is unlikely to get those who call ufology “ufoology” to revise their stance. Nevertheless, this development is thought provoking…
Despite Kayal’s stating he wants to culture an interdisciplinary approach to UAP research, given his own credentials, that the “IFEX focuses on extraterrestrial research projects in the context of science and technology”, and the institutions and authorities with which he seeks cooperation, the disciplines ultimately involved will most likely be restricted to what in German are termed the Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences) to the exclusion of the Geisteswissenschaften (les sciences humaine, the social sciences and humanities). In this regard, Kayal’s proposal is in line with both the general approach to the UFO phenomenon, assuming it is essentially physical, and what Jürgen Habermas fingered decades ago as the ideology of the world’s so-called advanced societies, what today is termed technoscience.
But even within a strictly natural scientific research framework, it is arguably blinkered not to consciously if not conscientiously include various humanistic disciplines. As I have pointed out in the case of the Galileo Project, if some UAP are thought to be artifacts of extraterrestrial technology, then one must clarify what conceptual warrant would be sufficient to categorize some observation as an observation of something extraterrestrial. Since this concept precedes or grounds the research proposed by Kayal, it cannot be resolved by observation or experiment but demands conceptual analysis and reflection, which is the domain of the philosophy of science. Moreover, the implications of discovering an extraterrestrial artifact are various: to communicate with it might well demand collaboration with linguists; should the artifact prove to piloted, then the fields of ethics, jurisprudence, and political philosophy, at least, come into play. Indeed, unless one assumes that UAP are ultimately only a merely poorly-understood natural phenomenon, such as ball lighting, then one must proceed in at least a provisionally echt interdisciplinary fashion, one true to the founding principles of the modern university that sought precisely to bring all forms of human learning and knowing under one roof, as it were, to counter the growing chasm between the natural and human sciences.
Regardless of how Kayal’s project ultimately proceeds, the history of ufology—coming up empty-handed, at least from a strictly scientific point of view—prompts further speculation. Rich Reynolds recently gave vent in characteristically splenetic fashion to the frustrations attendant upon the fruitlessness of ufology to date (Frenzied Ufological Activity That Takes Us Nowhere?) synchronicitiously around the time of the University of Würzberg’s press release. Reynold’s complaint raises, among others, the question of whether the UFO phenomenon in particular if not Forteana in general is not essentially mysterious.
Here, we need bracket the question of the being of the phenomenon to attend its potential meaning. Consider how, at least since the Phantom Airship wave of 1896/7, the UAP that appear as structured craft seem to be aeroforms just one step ahead of our own aeronautical technology. Consider, too, how, in the postwar period right up to today, UAP are reported to play cat-and-mouse with various air forces around the world. A most dramatic instance of this latter behaviour is the case of Thomas Mantell, who pursued a UFO in an ascent that eventually exceeded the performance capabilities of his plane, leading to his succumbing to anoxia and crashing. One might take this pattern to suggest that the UFO and ufonauts function as a lure, leading human curiosity along a particular path, e.g., to develop a technology that mimics the apparent performance characteristics of the UFO. In this way, the phenomenon might be imagined to play a Promethean role in human culture.
However, at the same time, the phenomenon mixes its apparent being technological with an unnerving playfulness and inscrutability (about which I imagine adherents to Trickster Theory might have something to say). The enduring mystery of the UFO is a characteristic shared with other Fortean phenomena, ghosts, Bigfoot, cryptids, etc. Perhaps—again, apart from the question of the being (“real nature”) or unity or plurality of these phenomena—Forteana function as a kind of resistance to the hubris of science if not reason. They are, on the one hand, ubiquitous, but, at the same time, ungraspable. As such, their being real is a matter of belief, a belief supported by the ephemeral individual experience, tenuous evidence (ambiguous footprints, ground traces, etc.) that asymptotes toward forensic verification but always falls short or remains forever teasingly suggestive, and, most importantly, word of Fortean happenings. As such, the Fortean realm functions as a critique, a marking of limits or boundaries, to a form of knowledge whose demonstrable power at the same time puffs it with a monomania that causes it to claim a monopoly on knowledge and to aspire to godlike power. Not long back, astrophysicist Sohrab Rahvar of Iran’s Sharif University has proposed altering the orbit of the earth just a little further from sun to offset global warming….
From the point of view of this conjecture, one might imagine that Fortean phenomena, in the modern era, i.e., since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, might be said to function as a kind of “compensatory antithesis” to the domination of technoscience, both epistemologically and, more gravely, ideologically, as Jung described the psychic role of flying saucers in his day, a reflexive, unconscious, collective critique of the technoscientific Weltanschauung, positing an ontological region technoscience can neither fence in nor colonize and dominate. It is sprightly where technoscience is grave; ephemeral and evanescent it eludes sustained observation and study; real, but according to a paradoxical ontology; and, no less importantly, “popular” where science is essentially specialized and therefore in a sense “elitist”. Unlike new and existing organized religions, moreover, it does not necessarily feel a compunction to work up an apologia in the face of the demands of science and in science’s own terms, the way some Protestant denominations do in articulating their theories of Intelligent Design (though many fascinated by the Fortean do just that). Even in the manner in which Fortean material is voraciously commodified and popularized, it persistently deflates attempts to imbue it with the High Seriousness Matthew Arnold, for example, saw as essential to (high) art. One might propose, along the lines of some religious studies scholars, that the Fortean inspires a kind of popular mystery religion.
Following the distinction between Nature (die Natur) and Spirit (die Geist) written into the way the German language distinguishes the two main fields of human knowledge, one might say that UFOs in particular and Forteana in general, as phenomena, flirt with appearing physically real (in a manner amenable to natural scientific investigation) only to manifest the membrane, epistemic or ontological, that separates the determinate cosmos of the scientists from the infinite, living realm of Spirit if not implying how the latter embraces and enfolds the former.
A clipping of an article about George Adamski (this post’s featured image) shared by Curt Collins recently got me thinking…
Adamski’s description of a flying saucer’s mother ship’s “tester”, its settling to earth “in a form of gelatin” that disintegrates when someone tries to retrieve it, brings to mind, first, “angel hair”, fibres like wool or nylon reported to fall from UFOs, most famously in Oloron, France, 17 October 1952, fibres that “when rolled up into a ball…rapidly became gelatinous, then sublimed in the air and disappeared” (as Aimé Michel recounts in his The Truth About Flying Saucers (New York: Pyramid, 1967, p. 154). Unlike the substance described by Adamski, these fils de la Vierge were temporarily retrievable before dissolving.
The cognoscenti might also be reminded of a UFO crash retrieval tale avant le lettre. According to The Nebraska Nugget, 6 June 1884 “John W. Ellis and three of his herdsmen and a number of other cowboys …were startled by a terrific whirring noise over their heads, and turning their eyes saw a blazing body falling like a shot to Earth.” When they investigated the crash site, what they found burned with a blinding light and with such heat one of their number suffered serious burns. Once the site cooled, the locals inspected the wreckage, which, following a rain storm and flash flood was reduced to small pools of jelly, which were said to have disappeared, in Jenny Randles’ paraphrase (UFO Retrievals, London: Blandford, 1995), “just like a spoonful of salt dissolving in water” (14). Randles cannily observes “this rather suggests that a spoonful of salt was exactly what the writer expected you to take with this entire story”. Nevertheless, the wreckage’s dissolving rimes with the evanescence of Adamski’s crashed “testers” and that of angel hair, and, given Jung’s alchemically-informed reflections on Flying Saucers, it is not insignificant that the wreckage is said to have disappeared like salt dissolving in water, “salt” being an important term in alchemical discourse…
What relates Adamski’s testers, angel hair, and the ultimate fate of what crashed in Nebraska to ghosts and hauntings is their similarity to ectoplasm (that variously slimy or fibrous substance whereby spirits are thought to manifest or other psi phenomena, e.g., telekinesis, are thought to be accomplished), once uniquely associated with Spiritualism and mediumship but now, in popular culture, associated with ghostly, spiritual phenomena in general. Angel hair and ectoplasm are both described as fibrous (regardless of whether this has to do with the various materials mediums used to hoax their manifestations…), and angel hair, the final residues of testers and airships, and ectoplasm are all gelatinous and evanescent, ectoplasm even, however ironically, extremely light-sensitive. And all are associated with Fortean or paranormal phenomena.
UFOs and ghosts share many other features. In no particular order: both are “transmedium”, UFOs and their occupants reported to pass through solid materials, whether walls or mountains, just like ghosts; both are evanescent, appearing and disappearing unpredictably (which makes them difficult to study under controlled conditions); both have been photographed, recorded, or otherwise instrumentally-registered, but in either case the evidence remains controversial. As Whitley Strieber has suggested and Joshua Cutchin’s forthcoming study maintains, both are relatable to death and the nature of the soul or “consciousness” as the discourse of the day has it. Doubtless, further features could be added (as Jacques Vallée has).
As the ellipses above suggest, my point here is not ufological nor parapsychological, for I make no attempt to separate what might count as “hard data” (more or less demonstrably reliable reports) from the more general discourse (or “stories”) about UFOs and ghosts and spirits. Rather, these analogues appear when these discourses are scrutinized as folklore or mythologies. But the implications for the work that goes on here at Skunkworks are not thereby made clearer. What implications such parallels have for ufology or a more general study of the paranormal I leave for interested parties interested in this way to work out. From the point of view of the ideology-critical speculations that compose some of the writing here, no implications present themselves offhand, and I’m skeptical even a close re-reading of Derrida’s Specters of Marx or brow-furrowing, headache-inducing reflections on the spectrology and hauntology developed therein might bear critical results.
Mythopoetically, these analogues, like those between alien abductions, shamanic initiations, near-death experiences, etc., suggest a complication, expansion or enrichment of a theme that already “has vista” (to borrow Whitman’s words), connotations and significations that, like any work of art, remain open-ended and unpredictable, much like the phenomena that are said to inspire these stories to begin with…
The matter has, at least, worked its way into the on-going composition of Orthoteny, the working title of my poetic treatment of that “mythology of things seen in the skies”. I append a draft of a section from On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery that deals with the Nebraska crash remarked above:
Regular readers here might be surprised to be reminded of Skunkworks’ raison d’être, namely, to showcase the work that goes into a long poem project attempting to portray the infinite stories of UFOs as a mythology, somewhat after the fashion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (that so artfully collated and presented the mythology of his time and place) and somewhat in the manner of Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony ( among other exemplars). Some of these attempts are readable here at the Skunkworks via the “poetry” tag.
In this regard, it’s a pleasure today not to have to compose something of my own, but direct readers to an article by Tony Trigilio, the author of Proof Something Happened, a poetic treatment of the Barney and Betty Hill abduction, viewed by many to be the archetype of the experience. In his piece, “Writing What You Don’t Know”, Trigilio describes composing this latest book (among others), referring, along the way to other poets who have dealt—quite explicitly—with “Martians”: Craig Raine, Robert Hayden, and Jack Spicer. As he writes, his book
does not attempt to solve whether something physically happened to the Hills that evening. The poems take no stand on the possibility of extraterrestrial life and alien abduction. The collection presumes only that the three hours of “missing time” the Hills experienced in the White Mountains truly did happen psychologically, whether caused by an alien abduction or something else on the fringes of the known. As the poems explore the aftermath of that evening in 1961, they emphasize the Hills’ struggle to understand their terrifying dreams and disjunctive flashbacks…
Such experiences, or, more importantly, how the come to occupy a place on the margins of culture, “arcane” in Trigilio’s terms, serve, ironically, to reveal as much about the heart of culture, if in a refracted, “alienated” way.
Watching a certain kind of article turn up on my news feeds gets a little like binge-watching The Walking Dead or one of its numerous spinoffs: how many times can one watch another zombie shamble into view to be dispatched? Surely, some readers here might justifiably feel the same when the topic of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) or the very notion of an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization is raised and cut down.
Until such time as I can win a forum for my arguments as public as that of a certain Harvard professor of astrophysics I can’t help but persist in the exercise, at least to keep my brain fibres warmed up and limber and my critical machete honed. On (in?) the other hand, it might be time to clarify what my reflections on this topic intend…
Two articles that caught my attention this week and that provide good opportunities in this regard are Joelle Renstrom’s from Wired “Looking for Alien Life? Seek Out Alien Tech” and another from Futurism “Scientists Say There May Be ‘Humans’ All Over the Universe“.
Renstrom’s article collates ideas already addressed here (that SETI might prove more fruitful were it to search for technosignatures rather than signals from extraterrestrial civilizations) along with remarks and reflections from Seth Shostak and Susan Schneider that speculate about the implications for SETI of an extraterrestrial species’ having become post-biological: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens—the merging of biological beings and machines. Maybe they’ve become nanosats. Maybe they’re data or are part of a digital network that functions like a collective consciousness….”
The critical fissure, however, is right there in that first sentence: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens”, and even more in the article’s subtitle: “Shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs could break us out of anthropocentrism and help guide humanity’s future.” Ironically, the “paradigm shift” Renstrom outlines (“shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs”) is itself anthropocentric, modeled as it is on the self-understanding of one, very recent and by-no-means global, culture of Homo Sapiens. The unconscious narcissism (anthropocentrism) is evident in the way Renstrom outlines his argument:
If we assume that biological life of some sort emerged on other planets, then we can also make some educated assumptions about how that life evolved—namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers. Maybe those species invented artificial intelligence (AI) or virtual worlds. Advanced ET may have reached the “technological singularity,” the point at which AI exceeds human or biological intelligence. Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…
Despite the fact we have yet to determine how life arose on earth and have yet to detect it off-world (provided we could even recognize it when we encountered it…), one would have to be perversely stubborn not to be moved if not convinced by the sheer number of even earth-like planets so far discovered not to grant the assumption that life-as-we-know-it has emerged elsewhere in the cosmos. But note the leap Renstrom makes: “namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers.” Aside from the far-from-unquestionable concept of technology at work here, that equates technology with (or reduces it to) tool-use, how is it an “educated assumption” that life gives rise to technology, especially that exemplified by factories and computers not to mention the complex society and culture that underwrite them? It is, from the available evidence, not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology (in a more educated sense), but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model. The critical move occurs when a vector of “development” is projected from the present into an imagined future (“what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…”). If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.
But what if those natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that govern evolution entailed that the morphology of life were more harmonious if not uniform, such that extraterrestrial, humanoid organisms were well within the realm of possibility? The theory of evolutionary convergence posits, roughly, that similar conditions can and will entail similar evolutionary developments. Mammals and cephalopods both possess eyes, though they do not share a common, eyed ancestor; likewise, birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs all developed flight independently. On these grounds, evolutionary biologists believe that “they can ‘say with reasonable confidence’ that human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe“.
Some planets are just going to have simple life on them. Many, maybe even most. But let’s assume that we found a planet with something we would call intelligent life. No one gets intelligence just because it would be a cool thing to have; their ancestors must have benefited from that intelligence. If they reached the stage where they can build a radio telescope, then they must have been through the stages where it was advantageous to be curious, where it was advantageous to communicate.
Kershenbaum’s speculation seems offered in a blithe spirit, but it’s precisely its light-heartedness that betrays the shallowness of the thinking at its foundations. First, there is the failure to reflect on “intelligence”; for Kershenbaum, it’s merely what “we would call intelligent life”, apparently an “intelligence” like our own, or, more precisely (and narrowly), like that ability to solve technical problems, instrumental reason, that leads to the construction of radio telescopes. It’s as if, e.g., David Stenhouse hadn’t published his Evolution of Intelligence in 1974 (!) that sought to articulate intelligence as “adaptively variable behavior,” a conception that recently has been applied to research into plant cognition. More gravely is the way Kershenbaum’s conjectures dovetail from evolution (natural selection) to culture, as if the latter were unproblematically reducible to and explainable by the former….
For the most part, discussions around UFOs, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), and SETI are divided between “believers” (UFOs are manifestations of the technology of extra-, ultra, or cryptoterrestrials, interdimensionals, or time travelers…) and “skeptics” (UFOs are a purely social or psychological phenomenon). Many who have encountered what I write here at Skunkworks slot it into the latter category, but, in doing so, really misread me.
At the end of the day, the questions posed by, e.g., The Galileo Project, are to be answered empirically. It may be that someday unequivocal evidence of nonhuman technology will be secured. However, at the same time, it is a legitimate question to ask just how such technology will be recognized as technology in the first place, just as it’s a legitimate question how we might recognize intelligent life (let alone life) if and when we encounter it offworld, let alone be recognized by that intelligent Other as its Other. What’s at stake in these questions is not a matter that can be resolved empirically, through observation or experiment; such questions address the concepts that are at the very basis of thinking about extraterrestrial life: What is technology, life, intelligence? As such it falls to philosophy to reflect on the assumptions and implications of the unconscious (assumed) content of these concepts as it is at work in the discourse about UAP and SETI.
The implications of how life, intelligence, technology, and related matters are thought are not merely “academic”, but reveal how the society and culture that deploy these concepts thinks about itself and other forms of life, human and otherwise. Speculations about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations or the future of our own are more science-fictions than evidence-based predictions, and, as such, function as mirrors that show ourselves to ourselves but in an indirect, distorted or estranged, way; like dreams, they may be said to reveal the unconscious of how we think about the world, and, like the unconscious, such thinking is not, strictly, rational. Indeed, these ideas can be shown to function ideologically, making seem inevitable and natural (and thereby defending and entrenching) a way of life that in fact is contingent and that favours one species or social group. Perhaps in this light what I write above is now more understandable:
It is…not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model… If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.
Thus, speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization are in fact inextricable from and revelatory of the most urgent crises facing life on earth, climate change, environmental degradation, extinction, and the role of humankind (or certain of its societies) in this crisis. How we imagine extraterrestrial life is how we think about life on earth, the other species with which we cohabit it, and the ways of living with them that Homo Sapiens has invented over the millennia.
Synchronicity is one of the editors here at the Skunkworks. Not long back, a member of that Facebook group I monitor (for research purposes) linked an article by Rupert Sheldrake, “Rationalists are wrong about telepathy”, and, yesterday (30 November 2021), The Anomalist drew our attention to a post at UFO Conjectures, “Telepathy and Consciousness“.
Telepathy as such is, shall we say, a complex issue. Sheldrake’s article points to what seem instances of precognition, thinking of someone just before they telephone or email, for example. Popular culture is familiar with Zener card experiments, or aliens’ telling an abductee telepathically, “Don’t be afraid…Don’t be afraid…”.
This latter example echoes in a way what one member of the group commented on the Sheldrake article thread: “We already engage in telepathy—the projection of our thoughts to another brain. Speech, signals, written text, we’ve mastered it”, and it’s this conception of telepathy, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind, I want to address here.
What’s curious about the comment (that “we already engage in telepathy…”) are the assumptions that underlie its mistaken claim. Surely, communication by means of some sensuous medium (speech, gesture, writing…) is not telepathy, which is, in some regards (namely, that under consideration here, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind), precisely communication by some other as-yet unidentified means.
But what telepathy as thought here and the comment share is the idea that thought or ideas precede or are otherwise independent of language. It’s precisely this assumption that I understand to motivate the comment concerning “speech, signals, [and] written text” as “the projection of thoughts” into another’s mind, if not brain: one brain communicates a thought to another—by means of some (presumably shared) semiotic system.
This philosophy of language, that language represents independently pre-existing ideas or objects, belongs to the European Enlightenment and seems to be the default, popular notion of language and its operations. It is depicted in the illustration of the communicative circuit familiar to students of linguistics.
A has an idea, thought, or concept that they translate into some sensuous sign (here, speech) that B hears and translates back into thought. The problem is however that, since the advent of a science of language (called philology in the Eighteenth Century), this theory of language has been superseded.
It was Herder (1744-1803) and Hamann (1730-1788) who pressed the thesis that human thought is dependent on language. This position was shared and developed by Humboldt (1767-1835) and, perhaps most famously, by Ferdinand de Saussure, who explained the relation of thought and sound by means of the illustration, below:
A is thought and B is sound; both without the other are amorphous or, more precisely, unarticulated. Vocal sounds, unless they are are recognized as linguistic types (signs), by themselves are mere gibberish; thought (concepts) unrelated to signs have no identity. Saussure envisions the relation between thought, sound, and articulate language as that between the atmosphere and the surface of water, which gives rise to waves, whose formation arises from the conjunction and interplay of these two elements and is nothing in itself. (As Saussure so famously maintained: language is not a substance).
The indivisibility of thought and language reaches its most extreme statement in the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis:
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.
If we take these developments in linguistic science seriously (notwithstanding the protestations of Jerry Fodor) then the possibility of that kind of telepathy discussed here vanishes: the purely mental transference of articulate thought between two people depends upon their sharing a language.
What’s important here is not so much telepathy in general, but that reported to occur between human beings and putative extraterrestrials. As Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously remarked, “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” How much less so an unearthly interlocutor? It does not follow that, given the possibility of telepathy in general, images or emotions or other nonlinguistic, inarticulate content might not be shared (the aliens could quite rationally subject human subjects to Zener card experiments…), just that no understandable thoughts per se could be exchanged. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: if a Zeta Reticulan were telepathic, we couldn’t understand what it was thinking.
In a Facebook group I’m given to haunting, one member posted a number of photos of mantes (that’s (one) plural for ‘mantis’), observing, e.g., “Yet another photograph of a praying mantis that at the same time reminds me of how modern Western fantasy artists depict fairies AND extraterrestrials.”
Whether anyone else might make the same connection, what struck me is how I first took the claim: it’s not that (as in a sighting or encounter report) the alien Other (fairies or extraterrestrials) look like mantes but that the mantis resembles them.
At first I was reminded of the (post)modern phenomenon of hyperreality, where it’s not the original that legitimates or “grounds” the representation, but, in our media-saturated society, the other way around. The American novelist Don DeLillo provides a good example: in his novel about the Kennedy assassination, Libra, a woman in the crowd that has come out to see the president says excitedly, “Oh! He looks just like his pictures!”.
The poster’s thinking is prima facie hyperreal in as much as it gives primacy to the representation (the pictures of fantasy artists) over the real object (the mantis) those representations are modelled after, i.e., what’s important about the mantis is its resemblance to artistic depictions, not how the mantis might inspire these representations or the encounter reports and folklore that the artists in turn interpret. Reality or its ground might be said to flow not from the real object to its picture, but from the picture to the real object.
But the poster’s thinking is both more uncanny and complex: it’s not the picture that makes the pictured real as in hyperreality, but, the representations of those liminal beings (fairies and extraterrestrials), whose very reality is questionable, that evokes the unquestionably real thing (the mantis). That is, the relation here is more ontological (the questionably real brings to mind the unquestionably real) than hyperreal (the picture grounds the authenticity of the depicted).
But what has been overlooked here is that it’s not mantes-as-such that bring to mind the artistic renderings of ETs and the Fae, but photographs of mantes that evoke artistic depictions. Strictly, one kind of picture brings to mind another kind; the photographs (themselves artistic renderings) bring to mind non-photographic artistic renderings. Is the resemblance between extraterrestrials and fairies on the one hand and mantes on the other, or is it between how mantids, liminal and real, are represented artistically? Is the poster moved by the resemblance between the insect and the reported morphology of certain alien Others or by conventions of artistic representation in different media?
What’s wound together here are two curious considerations. On the one hand is the transparency of media of representation, how attention is paid to what is pictured rather than the medium or manner of that picturing, an aesthetic anesthesia endemic to our time wherein the photographic has long since replaced the drawn or painted, but a moment no less of the erosion in our reflexive faith in photographic evidence (never mind realism) in an era of CGI and Deefakes. On the other is the no less thought-provoking resemblance between descriptions of nonhuman entities, extraterrestrial or otherwise, and their all-too-human or all-to-earthly morphology. This latter consideration doubtless has something to do with how anomalous experiences are made sense of and the provocative ways species and race are bound up with thinking about extraterrestrials….
A not unrelated development is the announcement that the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG) is to replace AATIP (Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program). The more excitable among the UFO community are persuaded this shift in (American) official stance toward Unidentified Aerial Phenomena is another move in that dance-of-many-veils called Disclosure.
A more historically-informed perspective, namely Kevin Randles’, judges “that we are looking at Twining 2.0, meaning there really is not much new here. We are in the summer of 1947 when the Pentagon didn’t know what was happening and began an investigation. The only real difference is that this seems to be more transparent… though the Navy has classified the sighting reports.”
A no-less deflationary stance is taken by a regrettably-pseudonymous author at Medium, “INFO_OPS” who makes the case that this most recent “UFO mania” beginning with the bombshell series of articles in The New York Times at the end of 2017, the subsequent creation of To The Stars Academy, down to this most recent announcement “is the result of a coordinated defense or intelligence influence operation.”
However much INFO_OPS’ adopting a pen-name (not unlike “Q”) raises the question of whether or not their contributions are any less part of “a coordinated defense or intelligence influence operation”, both their and Randles’ interventions underline that things are not as they seem, that the “official-version-of-events” is just that, a version of things, whose index-of-refraction, however much it seems transparent, is not.
This hermeneutics of suspicion can be applied not only to official statements about the phenomenon but to the phenomenon itself (or, at least, how it is itself represented in the form of sighting and encounter reports). Jacques Vallée has over decades consistently argued that the provocative irrationality of persistent features of the phenomenon mitigates against the theory that we are dealing with visitors, explorers, or invaders from other planets, dimensions, or times. Such high strangeness demands we reorient or reconfigure the categories by which we make sense of the world in order to integrate and assimilate the phenomenon’s bizarre behaviour. However, it’s precisely how destructive (if not deconstructive) the phenomenon is of our existing worldview in just this way that stages the phenomenon’s theatricality: the phenomenon is no longer what it appears to be (an alien spaceship surrounded by its crew collecting soil and plant samples, for example) but enacts a meaning beyond itself.
Such dissimulation, by government, media, or the phenomenon itself, bears a resemblance to literature, whose language is characterized precisely by its not saying what it means, operating by what critic Paul de Man termed “irony”. And there is surely no less (conventional) irony in the behaviour of the ufophilic or -maniacal. Their ardent desire for the truth, which would finally dispel the mystery, is the very reason they are so readily seduced by the bluffing and stonewalling of officialdom, the outright deception of intelligence operatives, the stories or tales of journalists, hoaxers, or outright hucksters, and, finally, perhaps—a la Vallée—the very phenomenon, a state of affairs that dates back to the earliest days of the modern phenomenon (post-1947), as can be read in the pages of Donald Keyhoe‘s books, that the Air Force possesses evidence of the truth of the matter but suppresses or misrepresents it until such time as the powers-that-be deem the general public fit to have the earth-shaking secret revealed. Instead of such revelation (or “disclosure”), we have experienced an endless deferral, a mindboggling efflorescence of reports, photographs and films, ‘zines, articles, books, documentaries, movies, and so on, in a word text, a situation summed up aptly in Derrida’s famous (and generally misconstrued) claim that “il n’y a rien en dehors du texte“…
This past week what caught the eye and/or sparked a thought was Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, Magic, and Science, and an Indigenous confirmation of the views I recently brought to bear against The Galileo Project and the attendant paradoxical implications of Star People….
I don’t often nod to other websites (Skunkworks should have a blog roll…), but a recent post at Curt Collins’ The Saucers That Time Forgot gives me the opportunity to draw attention to some of those I follow.
Collins’ post addresses Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” pointing out how “Almost from inception, the phrase has been used and abused to the point of cliché.” In doing so, Collins not only helps to clear away some of the fuzzy thinking that obscures the UFO phenomenon, but raises another topic of broader if not graver import.
Anyone familiar with the writings of Renaissance scholar Frances Yates will know how entwined magic and science are, mixed together as they are in the foment of Hermeticism and related movements just before the foundations of the Royal Society (the original Invisible College) were being set down. Both seek to control nature and their respective natures are much more closely related than the pedestrian history or philosophy of science would comfortably admit with their story of the triumphant emergence of enlightened, rational natural science from the obscure mysticism of alchemy and its ilk.
Today, Newton’s interests in alchemy, astrology, and labours to interpret Biblical prophecy are better, if not well, known. What is less known (but not to readers of Yates) are Descartes’ and Francis Bacon’s interest if somewhat unclear involvement in Rosicrucianism. This mutual implication of Magic and Science (and, by extension, technology) is happily the topic of serious research, a good primer of which can be found at independent scholar Andreas Sommers’ Forbidden Histories (which can be followed, too, on Facebook). Sommers’ Essential Readings is a small library sufficient to deconstruct in the rigorous sense the Science/Magic (or as Sommers terms it, the Natural Magic / Scientific Naturalism) binary.
Interested parties are also urged to check out the The Renaissance Mathematicus, which regularly and with much gusto takes the piss out of received ideas about the emergence of science from the Humanist dogmas of the Renaissance….
Pursuant to my critique of Loeb and his kind who identify intelligence with human, instrumental reason, the recently-published volume, The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, was brought to my attention (synchronicitously or otherwise…). Edited by Dennis McKenna, the book collects short essays, narratives and poetry by authors from the humanities, social, and natural sciences on plants and their interaction with humans. YES! Magazine published an excerpt from Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s contribution, “Hearing the Language of Trees”, wherein she writes:
The story of intelligences other than our own is one of continual expansion. I am not aware of a single research study that demonstrates that other beings are dumber than we think. Octopi solve puzzles, chickadees create language, crows make tools, rats feel anxiety, elephants mourn, parrots do calculus, apes read symbols, nematodes navigate, and honeybees dance the results of cost-benefit analysis of sucrose rewards like an economic ballet. Even the slime mold can learn a maze, enduring toxic obstacles to obtain the richest reward. The blinders are coming off, and the definition of intelligence expands every time we ask the question.
The ability to efficiently sense, identify, locate, and capture resources needed in a complex and variable environment requires sophisticated information processing and decision making. Intelligence is today thought of as “adaptively variable behavior,” which changes in response to signals coming from the environment.
Kimmerer’s position here harmonizes sweetly with that taken by my last post and Justin E. Smith’s argument concerning intelligence I condense there.
Kimmerer’s Indigenous perspective is one where “human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world[;] [o]ther beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons”, all of whom share “a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species”, a worldview at curious odds with that one chronicled by, among others, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, whose stories relate encounters with humanoid sky gods, giants, little people, and aliens among indigenous people. One is tempted to wonder why a world already inhabited by manifold intelligent creatures, intelligence freed from an anthropomorphic fetish, contains, too, nonhuman but nevertheless all-too anthropomorphic intelligences….
Anyone struck by the recent announcement of Christopher Mellon’s and Luis Elizondo’s being appointed research affiliates to Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project may have been curious enough to visit the project’s website, where they may have been tempted to read an article linked there, “Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests“, by project head Loeb.
Loeb proposes that “we” (who are we? Homo Sapiens? Americans? Harvard faculty?…) adopt the classical Greek custom of Xenia, the hospitality extended to strangers as typified in the Homeric epics, except in an expanded, “interstellar”, sense: “Interstellar Xenia implies that we should welcome autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence, which arrive to our vicinity from far away.” Why? “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.”
A problem with Loeb’s proposal is evident, first, in the example of mundane hospitality he offers and the exosocial implication he draws from it:
On a recent breezy evening, I noticed an unfamiliar visitor standing in front of my home and asked for his identity. He explained that he used to live in my home half a century ago. I welcomed him to our backyard where he noted that his father buried their cat and placed a tombstone engraved with its name. We went there and found the tombstone….
If we find visitors, they might provide us with a new perspective about the history of our back yard. In so doing, they would bring a deeper meaning to our life within the keen historic friendship that we owe them in our shared space.
Loeb’s anecdote is likely chosen as much for its concreteness and emotional appeal as for whatever features it might be said to share with a hypothetical encounter with ET. That being said, the scenario presents the encounter between Homo Sapiens and an extraterrestrial Other as one of immediate (i.e., unproblematic) mutual recognition (like that between Loeb and the “unfamiliar visitor”), which is both telling and fateful.
By what warrant does Loeb assume the unproblematic recognition of or by this Other? Aside from the obvious obstacle, that, while Loeb and his visitor, or the stranger and his host in Bronze Age Greece, share the same culture, which an interstellar visitor would not, consider the scenario depicted in the science-fiction film Europa Report. A team of astronauts is sent to explore the moon of Jupiter named in the film’s title, where it discovers under the ice a bioluminescent creature resembling an earthly squid or octopus. Does the creature use its bioluminescence to hunt or attract prey in the dark oceans under Europa’s ice, or, being “intelligent“, is it its means of communication? And, if the creature were “intelligent”, how would the human astronauts know and how would the creature perceive in the astronauts their “intelligence”? Why would the astronauts, rather than, say, their capsule, even be the focus of the creature’s curiosity? Even so shopworn a science-fiction franchise as Star Trek (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) envisioned a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial species blindly indifferent to all human civilization on earth in the search for its own Cetacean kind.
Even if we set aside the specific case of our encountering extraterrestrial intelligent life, the same problem persists. The Galileo Project’s first focus is the search for near-earth “extraterrestrial equipment“, whether a functioning artificially intelligent probe or piece of detritus. In any case, we must be able to recognize the artifact as an artifact, precisely the point of contention around ‘Oumuamua: was it a natural object or an artificial one, as Loeb et al. argue? Again, science fiction has touched on just this challenge, as the ability to perceive a piece of alien technology as such is pivotal to the plot of Star Trek: the Motion Picture. (Loeb seems more a fan of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact or its film version). The problem becomes even more intractable if we take seriously speculations that the very structures of the cosmos or its laws may be artifacts.
So, whether our interstellar interloper be a piece of technology, “intelligent” or otherwise, or biological, we are a far ways from the easy hospitality Loeb was able to offer his visitor, as we may not even know we are in the presence of a visitor and that stranger may not recognize they are in the presence of a potential host. How is it, then, that Loeb overlooks these grave obstacles to mutual recognition in his advocating Interstellar Xenia? I propose that Loeb, like all those obsessed with, fascinated by, or or otherwise inclined to indulge the idea of extraterrestrial, intelligent life, is on the lookout for an anthropomorphic “intelligence”, failing to recognize, at the same time, that encountering an exo-tic, extraterrestrial life form is an instance of interspecies communication.
One needn’t travel to an imagined Europa to discover the grave flaws in Loeb’s perspective. First, restricting “intelligence” to human intelligence in general or that teleological, problem-solving, technical intelligence, instrumental reason, is demonstrably perverse, de facto and de jure. One need only glance at the growing body of research into animal and plant intelligence to see that Homo Sapiens already inhabits a planet teeming with intelligent, nonhuman life. Philosophical reflection on the concept of intelligence, too, dissolves the identification of intelligence with human, instrumental reason. Justin E. Smith makes this case in both a lively and readable manner that I encourage interested parties to read for themselves; here, I attempt to condense his case…. Smith explains
…the only idea we are in fact able to conjure of what intelligent beings elsewhere may be like is one that we extrapolate directly from our idea of our own intelligence. And what’s worse, in this case the scientists are generally no more sophisticated than the folk….
One obstacle to opening up our idea of what might count as intelligence to beings or systems that do not or cannot “pass our tests” is that, with this criterion abandoned, intelligence very quickly comes to look troublingly similar to adaptation, which in turn always seems to threaten tautology. That is, an intelligent arrangement of things would seem simply to be the one that best facilitates the continued existence of the thing in question; so, whatever exists is intelligent….
it may in fact be useful to construe intelligence in just this way: every existing life-form is equally intelligent, because equally well-adapted to the challenges the world throws its way. This sounds audacious, but the only other possible construal of intelligence I can see is the one that makes it out to be “similarity to us”…
Ubiquitous living systems on Earth, that is —plants, fungi, bacteria, and of course animals—, manifest essentially the same capacities of adaptation, of interweaving themselves into the natural environment in order to facilitate their continued existence, that in ourselves we are prepared to recognize as intelligence….
There is in sum no good reason to think that evolutionary “progress” must involve the production of artifices, whether in external tools or in representational art. In fact such productions might just as easily be seen as compensations for a given life form’s inadequacies in facing challenges its environment throws at it. An evolutionally “advanced” life form might well be the one that, being so well adapted, or so well blended into its environment, simply has no need of technology at all.
But such a life form will also be one that has no inclination to display its ability to ace our block-stacking tests or whatever other proxies of intelligence we strain to devise. Such life forms are, I contend, all around us, all the time. Once we convince ourselves this is the situation here on Earth, moreover, the presumption that our first encounter with non-terrestrial life forms will be an encounter with spaceship-steering technologists comes to appear as a risible caricature.
Both fact and reason, then, call into serious question the very intelligibility of Loeb’s imagined, hospitable meeting, for there are no grounds to decide just what organism, extraterrestrial or otherwise, would count as an Other for us to greet (and vice versa: on what grounds would Homo Sapiens be picked out of all the other species on earth to be that Other’s Other?). It’s almost as if Loeb has taken his clue from mythology, not only that found in the epic accounts of xenia, but the Biblical Creation story, wherein Man is made in the image of God and given sovereignty over all other creatures, or the myth of Prometheus who gifts humankind fire or inventive ingenuity. Such a metaphysical idea grants Homo Sapiens a special characteristic (“intelligence”), which is then imagined to be possessed by other, similarly “ensouled” and gifted extraterrestrials we hope not merely to encounter but to meet.
This hope, however, is futile, as the only creature that meets the criteria we have set is ourselves. Were the problem grasped in its more thorough-going form, as one of interspecies communication, then we might turn our attention to all those other organisms with whom we share the earth and perhaps reflect on the nature and extent of the hospitality we extend to them and may perhaps be said to owe them. With this thought, the perversity of why we should extend hospitality to “autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence” is revealed: “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.” First, Loeb narrows down civilization to its technology (as if technology were somehow meaningfully abstractable from the society and culture that produce it), then he restricts the interaction to what we, the hosts, might gain (“knowledge”), twisting his central idea of xenia out of all resemblance to the Hellenic custom he invokes, which is characterized in the first instance by the generosity of the host.
Loeb’s vision here is, first, narcissistic (i.e., it sees intelligence only as human intelligence, which he in turn seems to restrict to technical ingenuity, at that) and, second, self-centredly grasping (in conceiving of xenia only in terms of what we, the hosts, have to gain from our guests, “knowledge”). The supreme irony of Loeb’s position is revealed by this insistence that the discovery of a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization would precipitate a “Copernican revolution” that would disabuse humankind of its delusion that it is the only “intelligent” (and, hence, the most intelligent) species in its galactic neighbourhood, inspiring it to adopt instead a “cosmic modesty“, when in fact Loeb has conceived human instrumental reason as “intelligence” itself, the archetypal standard by which any other organism is determined to be intelligent or not, i.e., his stance is fundamentally anthropocentric. The narcissism of this conception entails that we will only ever be able greet and extend hospitality to ourselves. Loeb’s stranger is not strange enough….
As I observed in the last Sightings post, ufology as that myth-of-things-seen-in the-skies, despite apparent, dramatic developments (novelties), seems to orbit in an eternal-recurrence-of-the-same, which is characteristic of myth as such; myth posits an eternal (ever recurring) order…. That being said, some recent developments caught my attention.
The Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts (headed by Avi Loeb) recently named Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo as Research Affiliates. (I assume these two names and their respective place in recent ufology are not unfamiliar.) I’ve elaborated a number of critiques of the thinking underwriting Loeb’s views concerning extraterrestrial technological artifacts (the most developed can be read here). However ideologically invested Loeb’s ideas, their scientific value remains an open question, depending on Project Galileo’s ultimate—empirical—findings. But it’s precisely the project’s scientific reputation that is thrown into question by its affiliation with Mellon and Elizondo, given their respective backgrounds in intelligence and their overt statements and innuendos concerning UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). Given Mellon’s and Elizondo’s enthusiastic participation in the drama of “Disclosure”, the scientifically-minded might be excused for wondering just how much of value the two can bring to, e.g., “assessing the societal implications of the data, if any extraterrestrial technological signatures or artifacts are discovered.” One’s tempted to imagine that once History’s The Secret of Skin Walker Ranch has run its inevitable course it might not be replaced by a new reality series, The Galileo Project….
The appointment of Mellon and Elizondo to a research project searching for artifacts of extraterrestrial technology underlines, again, the near hegemony a certain thinking about extraterrestrial life (and, by extension and most importantly, life on earth) holds in both the popular and more specialized imaginations, e.g., that of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers. Corey S. Powell’s Aeon article “The search for alien tech” reveals both in how SETI research has recently expanded in the wake of the discovery of exoplanets and most acutely in his own reflexive (unconscious) rhetoric just how strong the grip of this thinking is.
Powell describes how “each age has featured its own version [of] yearning for contact with life from beyond, always anchored to the technological themes of the day”. Roughly in the latter half of last century SETI was essentially the search for a demonstrably alien, artificial signal somewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, whether visible (e.g., laser) or invisible (e.g., radio). However, with the discovery of how to detect and study exoplanets, the search was able to broaden its horizon to include the chemical fingerprints of life and technology, bio- and technosignatures. These latter include, for example, the specific light reflected from solar panels, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, “highly versatile compounds that are used as solvents, refrigerants, foaming agents and aerosol propellants”), or “nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of combustion or high-temperature manufacturing,” namely, the kinds of technosignatures human activity leaves in earth’s atmosphere. However, as Powell remarks “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all.” The search for technosignatures, therefore, expands to include “mechanical technosignatures”, such as a Dyson Sphere, or the kinds of artifacts The Galileo Project is on the hunt for.
There is an irony, however, in, on the one hand, admitting that “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all” and, on the other, the tellingly offhand comparison Powell makes discussing technosignatures:
We spew pollutants, belch factory heat during the day, and light up our cities at night. We can’t help it, any more than bacteria can help emitting methane. By extension, any advanced aliens could be expected to visibly alter their planet as an inevitable byproduct of creating a manufactured, industrial civilization.
Powell’s comparison levels the difference between the waste products of an organism’s metabolism and those of social, techno-industrial processes, human or alien, whose societies are thereby (if not therefore) imagined (if not thought) to be organisms writ large. Powell’s rhetoric here (con)fuses the natural and the social, natural history and history proper (Adorno’s critique of the distinction notwithstanding).
Powell’s rhetoric is part-and-parcel with that thinking that governs SETI in general and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs, the (Platonic) idea that life is not shaped only by biology but by some teleology that launches it on a vector to develop the kind of intelligence homo sapiens imagines it possesses, which, in turn, necessarily expresses itself as tool-use and technological development along the lines laid out by “First World” historians (who imagine that the world’s present-day “advanced” societies represent a goal or end of history…). Astrobiologist Jason Wright et al. keep strange company when they imagine alien technology millions or billions of years old (and presumably as much in advance of our own); Maitreya Raël tells us, too, that his Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us….
More gravely is how this confusion of natural history and history proper evacuates the possibility of even thinking of self-directed social change (societies are ultimately as mindlessly instinctual as colonies of bacteria) and thereby serves a politically “conservative”, reactionary function. David Wengrow makes a not unrelated point with regard to how reigning, inherited narratives of cultural development work as myths (there’s that word again) to drain away the potential for even imagining alternate futures or change. Wengrow rehearses this restraining view of human history as follows:
We could live in societies of equals, this story goes, when we were few, our lives and needs simple. In this view, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Big means complex, which involves hierarchy, exploitation and the competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we are left to draw the obvious dismal conclusions. There is no sense fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our grow-or-die economy, what hope do we really have of making progress? [my emphasis]
Or, as Fredric Jameson so memorably put it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Happily, as Wengrow points out and explains “nothing about this familiar conception of human history is actually true.”
The myth that possesses the imagination of believers in or speculators about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations is as scientifically and philosophically problematic as it is socially consequential. On the one hand, we don’t even know how life appeared on earth, but what we do know, however, is that its evolution has been a precarious, chance-ridden, unpredictable process. On the other, the story of human culture and society is even more aleatoric and varied, underwritten by what Wengrow terms “the spark of political creativity” or philosophers, more generally, “freedom”. Accounts of life, “intelligence”, “development”, or “progress” that merely posit the (self-serving) self-understanding of one culture on earth as the outcome of some natural, necessary, universal process serve to only reify, naturalize and entrench, the social relations of that culture, now at a moment when its unnaturalness, borne out by the daily mounting evidence of its unsustainability (to put it in the most “objective” terms), is most in need of unmasking.
Despite the feverish belief in Disclosure heightened in some by the most recent flurry of institutional and media interest in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), the UFO phenomenon arguably remains a recalcitrant mystery. Given that that mystery has been so stubborn for over seven decades, it is unsurprising that some curious parties have turned to philosophy to help clarify if not resolve the matter.
I’m unaware just how much activity online brings philosophy to bear. It was Rich Reynolds’ attempted application of some of Sartre’s thinking that led to my first engagement with one of his ufological blogs (the current is UFO Conjectures). In terms of print culture, David J. Moore and Adrian Rudnyk have written books, Evolutionary Metaphors: UFOs, New Existentialism, and the Future Paradigm and The Assessment: The Arrival of Extraterrestrials respectively, that could be described as philosophical works proper. Many more authors draw on philosophy as part of their efforts. Jeffrey J. Kripal and Whitley Strieber refer to Immanuel Kant and Husserlian phenomenology in their coauthored book The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained is Real. Robbie Graham uses Jean Baudrillard to illuminate the ways the UFO becomes hyperreal through the reproduction of its image, cinematically and otherwise, in his Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies. And M. J. Banias (The UFO People: a curious culture) and George P. Hansen (The Trickster and the Paranormal) both seek to bring to bear the thinking of Jacques Derrida, specifically his first intervention into political philosophy, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International.
It’s Hansen’s reading and application of Derrida to the field of parapsychology that I want to address here, for reasons as synchronicitous as personal. During this most recent pandemic, Hansen’s online presence seemed to seek me out, whether a Zoom “graduate seminar” on his Trickster Theory or a recent interview (Part 1 here; Part 2 here). Moreover, I’ve been curious as to why his thinking seems to be held in such high esteem by those interested in such matters (he was referred to as “Guru Hansen” in a recent Facebook comment thread). And his characteristic, provocative haughtiness (or so it seems to me) when it comes to institutions, such as the academy, piqued me to look into what he had to say about the field of what he calls “literary criticism”, one I’ve been not unacquainted with for forty years. I can take encouragement from his own invitation in the Preface to his book that readers need not read it “front to back” (16) and that one might well begin “with a topic of personal interest.”
To be fair, Hansen devotes all of eight pages of his 564-page book to “deconstructionism” (sic) and only some paragraphs of those pages to Derrida. Though he does quote de Saussure, de Man, and Barthes, he seems to have drawn his understanding of what the cognoscenti call “Theory” from the secondary sources characteristic of the initial (very muddled) reception of structuralism and post-structuralism or those that are downright hostile, e.g., Page Smith’s Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (378) and David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (379). It would be a tiresome, thankless labour to comb through those eight pages, criticizing all the errors and misrepresentations. Should satisfaction be demanded, I will gladly meet the challenger on the digital field where we might wield our respective keyboards. However, here, let me address Hansen’s misreadings of two of Derrida’s texts, “Telepathy” (most recently collected in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume 1, pp. 226-261) and the aforementioned Specters of Marx.
Regarding “Telepathy”, right off Hansen reveals what the hermeneuticist would call his “prejudices” (Vorurteilen in German): he observes, “To [Derrida’s] credit, he at least briefly addressed the paranormal…” (379). It is easy to understand why someone with an interest in the paranormal reading a text titled “Telepathy” might assume the topic is parapsychological, but such a working hypothesis is less trustworthy in the case of a writer as original as Derrida; the educated guess that Derrida is venturing some thoughts on a parapsychological topic needs to be tested against what the remainder of that enticingly-titled text says. Hansen is at least honest enough to admit that “Telepathy” “is extremely odd”. For Hansen, Derrida’s text “is a confused hodgepodge of fragments from Freud (letters, notes, etc.).” Puzzled if not stonewalled by this perplexing text, Hansen turns to a secondary work by the translator of “Telepathy” Nicholas Royle, Telepathy and Literature: Essays on the Reading Mind: “It is frightening. Reading Derrida is frightening. As he [Derrida?] says in ‘Telepathy’, he scares other people and he scares himself.” Hansen concludes that
…grossly ignorant of the paranormal and its implications [,] [w]hen he ventured into that foreign territory, being oblivious to any useful scholarship, he lunged for the only thing he knew relevant: the antiquated writings of Freud…Obviously unsettled by what he encountered, he was unable to articulate it.
Nevertheless, Derrida’s article attests to the importance of telepathy. But the topic renders him almost incoherent; he doesn’t know what to do with it. Royle commented [sic] that “Derrida implies that a theory of telepathy, especially insofar as his ‘own’ text promotes the possibility of such a theory, is inextricably linked to the question of writing.” Royle proposed [sic] “‘Telepathy as a name for literature as discursive formation.” Derrida and Royle seemed [sic] to recognize telepathy as important for communication, but they were [sic] at a loss as to how to think about it. (380)
Hansen’s reading is extremely odd. Given that “Telepathy” is a collection of ten, dated texts, from 9 July 1979 to 15 July 1979, it is difficult to understand why he reads the text as a whole as “a confused hodgepodge of fragments from Freud” (my emphasis). (Perhaps Hansen means the fragments often quote “from Freud”, which they do). More importantly, Derrida himself makes clear in the first endnote that the ten texts were intended to be included in the first section of The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, whose first section, “Envois” is composed of the same kind of short texts, dated 3 June 1977 to 30 August 1979, which Derrida tells us might be considered “the remainders of a recently destroyed correspondence” (3) (obviously not “from Freud”!). It’s not that Derrida essays the topic of telepathy as a paranormal phenomenon, grasping at Freud for some belated guidance, but that “Telepathy” is a fragment of a larger text, composed itself of fragments, which (as is Derrida’s wont) probe or essay ‘telepathy’, especially as it is articulated by Freud (See note 7 to “Telepathy” in Psyche), as part of Derrida’s larger deconstructive project to think and write about language, writing, and literature in novel terms (e.g., telepathy) not indebted to the “metaphysical” inheritance, to (re)think ‘telepathy’ as “inextricably linked to the question of writing” and “as a name for literature as a discursive formation”. Little surprise, moreover, Derrida should allude to Freud so in sections of a book intended for a volume subtitled “from Socrates to Freud and Beyond”. It’s not that Derrida is “at a loss as to how to think about” telepathy, but that Hansen, apparently ignorant (grossly or otherwise) of Derrida’s work up to and including The Postcard (admittedly a difficult, perplexing book) and ignoring the context of the text he seeks to understand, shoehorns “Telepathy” into his own (parapsychological) categories to generate a skewed and unsurprisingly unsatisfying if not damning reading.
Hansen’s reading of Specters of Marx suffers from the same errors. He is adamant that “it’s very clear if you read Derrida” that Specters is “all about ghosts” in the paranormal sense. (Hansen makes this claim between the 12:00 and 14:00 marks of the second half of the podcast interview linked above). But, in this case, Hansen’s misinterpretation is even more egregious than in the case of the admittedly obscure “Telepathy”. Derrida states in the “note on the text” that precedes even the dedication that the book is an “augmented, clarified”, and supplemented version of “a lecture given in two sessions”, which “opened an international colloquium… under the ambiguous title ‘Whither Marxism?’ in which one may hear beneath the question ‘Where is Marxism going?’ another question: ‘Is Marxism dying?'”. Moreover, aside from being titled Specters of Marx (with its allusion to the first line of The Communist Manifesto), the book is subtitled “The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning [an allusion to Derrida’s work of the same name], and the New International [an allusion to the history of the workers’ movement]”. However original and startling a thinker, it beggars the imagination that on this occasion Derrida would deliver a plenary address with this title—on the paranormal.
A couple of passages from the book’s first part, the exordium, lend credence to reading Specters as an intervention, however unorthodox, into the field of political philosophy at a crucial moment in history (immediately following the collapse of “really existing socialism” and the consequent triumphalism of Western democracies that proclaimed “the end of history”) rather than an out-of-place discourse on the paranormal. Derrida first raises the topic of ghosts after the exordium’s opening paragraphs that probe the assertion “I would like to learn to live finally”.
If it—learning to live—remains to be done, it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between two, and between all the “two’s” one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost. So it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such. (xviii) [my emphasis]
Not only because it is taken out of context, but also because much of it defers (readers of Derrida will understand why I emphasize that word) its sense to what is to come in the remainder of the talk the passage is far from immediately clear let alone understandable. What some readers might be tempted to take as clear are the emphasized claims, that “the spectral is not” and “is never present as such”, reducing them to some banal statement to the effect “ghosts do not exist.” But, again, readers of Derrida will recognize these two sentences allude to Martin Heidegger’s project of the Destruction of the History of Ontology (deconstruction being the French translation of the German Destruktion). Heidegger famously posed again the question he claimed drove the philosophical reflections of Plato and Aristotle, “What is being?”. He argued that, from antiquity to his own time, that question had been answered as “Being is presence”. Whatever Derrida hopes to think by ‘the spectral’, he seeks to think this other side of that traditional, (what Heidegger and Derrida termed) metaphysical answer to the question of Being. The spectral is not, i.e., it is not to be thought as present. Moreover, the spectral, aside from never being “present as such” is not to be thought as “substance, essence, nor existence”, all names for being-as-presence at different moments in the history of philosophy. My point here is that despite Derrida’s deploying terms here translated as ghosts, spirits, and the spectral, any immediate understanding of them in a conventional (e.g., parapsychological) sense is hasty and even cautioned against by the way they are written about.
A relatively long passage on the facing page begins to maker clearer what ghosts and the spectral might have to do with the fall of communism, the consequent new world order, ethics (“to learn to live”), and politics.
It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it, from the moment that no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born. No justice—let us not say no law and once again we are not speaking here of laws—seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, with that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead. (xix)
Here, Derrida is attempting to think ethics and politics beyond the realm of the present, the living, both to do justice to those who have come before and those who are yet to come. This injunction, to “disjoin the living present” (the epigraph for the entire book is taken from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint”), is uncanny when precisely the question of what we owe future generations is an urgent matter. Being, here, is no longer present, for the dead and the to-be-born, like the spectral, are not. Specters of Marx, the way the history of philosophy forged itself over time linking the terms substance, essence, being, etc., thinks its way with spectre, ghost, spirit, as thought in Marx and Shakespeare and others, a manner of writing thinking familiar to readers of Derrida, one true to the differance (difference and deferral) that might be said to govern language, writing, and thought. The “specter” in Derrida’s title is a rhetorical vehicle, not a reference to a paranormal entity, however mysterious.
However gravely mistaken I propose Hansen to be about Derrida’s thinking, what I argue should in no way to be taken to denigrate, devalue, or otherwise call into question the remainder of The Trickster and the Paranormal or Trickster Theory in general. As I write above, I was piqued by the force of Hansen’s maintaining that “Telepathy” and Specters address paranormal topics, a dogmatic assertiveness I felt called for inspection. Ironically, it is Derrida who plays the part of a kind of necromancer in these texts, reviving the signs ‘telepathy’, ‘specter’, ‘ghost’, etc. from the rigor mortis of unthinking, reflexive everyday use (e.g., the paranormal one), inspiring their dead letters with a new spirit, sentencing them not to death but a new life and new meaning. But as Hansen would likely be the first to acknowledge, such uncanny work eludes quotidian understanding.
Things have been so quiet here at the Skunkworks (six weeks without a post) it prompted a tactful and warmly-received inquiry as to our well-being!
Posting here has slowed for a number of reasons. Materially, after nearly two years without a functioning library, the custom-made bookcases ordered over a year ago are almost finally installed, which has entailed the sorting, schlepping, alphabetizing, and shelving of more than 2,400 books. The ufological library’s soon no longer being a pile of books in the corner will at least facilitate a return to some of the projects undertaken here, e.g., a continuation of the study of the books cited in Jung’s Flying Saucers, categorized as “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”, along with some tardy notices if not reviews of recent ufological and ufological poetry books….
Admittedly, other concerns have imposed themselves. Apart from the more philosophical, ideology-critical reflection that goes on here, the raison d’être of the Skunkworks is to make public (and to make me publicly accountable for) the on-going composition of the mytho-ufological epic, Orthoteny (e.g., the last post, “Alexander Hamilton’s Prototypical Cattle Mutilation Tale” that shared a part of that epic, from On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery). Editing and submitting at least two other, unrelated poetry manuscripts and their component poems have also eclipsed for the moment much of the work that goes on here at the Skunkworks. Moreover, readers who recall the last two “Sightings” (4 July and 26 June) will also likely remember how these posts’ concerns, however related to the UFO mythology, were as much if not more the climate emergency (I’m working on an essay about the belief in near-term human extinction) and the ongoing liquidation, cultural and physical, of Canada’s First Peoples (30 September 2021 was the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada).
But, more acutely, is the striking irony that as the phenomenon wins more “official” legitimacy (whether from various branches of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment or even scientifically, in the form of Loeb et al.’s Galileo Project) its cultural significance is all the more staid. As the cognoscenti have observed, in terms of governmental interest, we’ve been here before, nor does the Galileo Project push forward or, more importantly, deepen the research of SETI. How many times need I reiterate the ideological underpinnings of the search for technosignatures or extraterrestrial technological artifacts?
Indeed, these recent, dramatic (at least among some circles) developments, within the modern (post-1947) history of the phenomenon, seem an instance of an “eternal recurrence of the same”, that characteristic of myth that sees history as a pattern of eternally repeating structures. (Little wonder the circularity of the flying saucer reminded Jung of the mandala…). This aspect of the development of the mythology seems to have reached a limit point with the publication of Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity. As I have argued the book seems a repressed work of science fiction, a provocative characterization of the UFO mythology itself (a discourse whose literality is unstable, questionable and problematic). It’s as if at the moment when the literality of the phenomenon seems to be approaching institutional acceptance (a moment in the unfolding of Disclosure?), its symbolic, mythological (if not ideological) significance presses against that literality to near a bursting point.
The “Disclosure” we are pursuing here is the presentation if not revelation of just that Symbolic, ideological content of the UFO mythology, “the myth of things seen in the skies”, and therein and thereby the myth (ideology) that underwrites, sustains and inspires the civilization and its worldview that finds it easier to imagine the end of the world than its own transformation, no small task and one, like poetry, alienated and distant from the march of “current events”.
Over at Mysterious Universe, Brent Swancer shares a collection of premodern tales of cattle mutilation, among them the prototypical if not archetypal story told by Alexander Hamilton during the Great Airship Mystery of 1896/7. Spencer’s reminding us of this report opens the door to my sharing my own poetic rendering of the encounter, one of the many smaller poems that compose a long poem On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery, part of that larger, “epic” project whose working title is Orthoteny.
Since WordPress does violence to the lineation of poetry, I post the poem, below, as a PDF.
One fairly consistent observation among American UFO people in the frothing wake of media attention to the recently released Preliminary Assessment on UAP is how the topic is now not only taken relatively seriously but how this interest is shared across the Great Divide in American politics and culture (Republican vs. Democrat, Conservative vs. Liberal), both among politicians (e.g., Marco Rubio (R) and Harry Reid (D)) and television networks (Fox and CNN). Now, Marik von Rennenkampff, an opinion columnist for The Hill, proposes an even stronger possible role for the topic in his piece How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation.
Von Rennenkampff argues that “the UFO mystery could ultimately transcend the deep polarization of the post-Trump era,” regardless of what Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) ultimately turn out to be. On one reading, the Preliminary Assessment leaves it open that, as President Trump’s final director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe claims, “there are technologies that we don’t have and frankly that we are not capable of defending against” or, that as Chris Mellon, et al. maintain, these technologies may be extraterrestrial. “If Ratcliffe is correct and analysts ruled out mundane explanations or advanced U.S. and adversarial technology, the government’s high-level assessments would fuel a remarkable discussion, drawing in Americans from across the political divide,” thinks von Rennenkampff. Alternatively, “if a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters, the upshot is that America will [still] be less politically and culturally fractured,” precisely because of “the intense bipartisan interest” this latest iteration of “the UFO mystery” will have inspired.
Von Rennenkampff seems caught up by an enthusiasm for the phenomenon that has clouded his reasoning. On the one hand, one has to wonder how serious the public interest in “the UFO mystery” is. Surely, some believe UAP are “real” as fervently as they do the earth revolves around the sun or the earth is flat, but many, imaginably, even among the roughly half the American public who will say “that UFOs reported by people in the military are likely evidence of intelligent life outside Earth” do so because there is nothing at stake in entertaining the idea. On the other, Rennenkampff is correct to posit that should a large majority of the American populace get taken by the question of the nature of UAP America will be less culturally fractured…on precisely this one point, but it hardly follows that the country will be less politically divided on questions of, e.g., reproductive or labour rights, race relations, gun control, the division of church and state, the environment, taxation, or foreign policy.
At the end of his column, von Rennenkampff writes something that can be read as his dimly realizing the vacuousness of his own thesis: “As large swathes of the country face a drought of ‘biblical proportions’ and all-time temperature records are demolished, an unlikely shot at uncovering ‘breakthrough technology’ is worth eroding the deep fault lines dividing America.” Von Rennenkampff’s very rhetoric undermines his proposal. A drought of “biblical proportions” would, in a country with as many fundamentalist Christians as the U.S., make a profound, urgent impression on just that populace keyed to perceive it, a demographic more likely to respond to such a sign from heaven than lights in the sky. Furthermore, to “erode” a fault line would be to deepen it, unless the author has in mind some biblical deluge that would wash away the earth on either side. His very language testifies against the spuriousness of what he intends.
Moreover, the contrast between the gravity of undeniable, sustained drought and killer heat and the flight of fancy of that “unlikely shot” is stunning. Von Rennenkampff’s wager seems to be that UAP are “real”, that they represent either an earthly or unearthly “breakthrough technology” (at least aeronautically), a technology that can be harnessed to practically address the climate emergency, and that the public might be tricked into uniting to tackle this undeniable existential threat by the fascinating lure of a seemingly mysterious technology (ours or theirs or theirs) when it fails to acknowledge what in fact is right in front of its eyes wreaking death and havoc. And if he and we lose this wager, and “a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters,” what then?
The bitter irony is that Americans are unable to come together in the face of a relatively concrete public health emergency, to agree on and follow the public health measures, e.g., masking and vaccination, to bring the present pandemic under control, much less to come to terms with the reality posed by drought, dangerously high temperatures, and increasingly powerful and destructive tropical storms and hurricanes. If Americans can’t unite in the face of such immediate, dire threats, the political potential of UAP is a will o’ the wisp.
In a not unrelated vein, some readers of last week’s Sightings may have been mystified or miffed by my linking and referring to a leaked draft of the latest IPCC report in the context of and in contrast to the big ufological news of that week, the release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP. The comments on a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans”, however, included some very telling and pertinent remarks that are more assured of the assessment’s implications: “We now know that humans or non-humans have objects that can move around at very high speeds without giving off a significant heat signature”, and
The US govt just confirmed the existence of UFOs. They are either human or non-human (i.e., not swamp gas, ‘system errors’ etc). These UFOs move in ways that defy currently known technology…. ‘States and businesses’ could get on with researching this now known direction of technological travel,
and most tellingly, in light of the “recent UFO disclosure…We now know for sure the technology exists [to mitigate green house gas emissions]—time to see what it can do and how it might reduce the environmental footprint of humanity”.
Here is a demographic convinced that humankind has either developed or encountered “a breakthrough technology” adaptable to solving its energy and environmental challenges. But its seeing this technology as a way to solving the climate emergency is as muddle-headed as von Rennenkampff’s wager. If the technology is nonhuman, then the possibilities of our exploiting it for our own ends are vanishingly small (the claims of Michael Salla and Steven Greer notwithstanding); if the technology is human (which the Assessment is far from affirming), it doesn’t follow it is even applicable or scalable to solving global warming. Both fanciful hopes are akin to the more mundane if speculative technofixes proposed by geoengineers: they all fixate on development’s solving the problems that attend development when the painful truth of the matter is that we already possess immediately deployable ways to reduce both green house gas emission and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (e.g., the hundred plus solutions set out by Project Drawdown) whose primary obstacle to being implemented is political, namely those parties with vested interests in maintaining an ecocidal status quo from which they profit (and who are among the first to promote technofixes that leave social relations favourable to their flourishing untouched): they are, in a word, ideological.
What’s remarkable about these two instances of “the UFO imaginary” is how their intended touching down on real world concerns is in actuality a flight into fantasy. The overwhelming, seeming intractability of urgent, real world problems makes some of us, understandably, avert our gaze heavenward, seeking answers that cost us nothing to these problems that seem to threaten everything.
In a recent discussion with a friend about Avi Loeb’s hypothesis that the object ‘Oumuamua displayed behaviours consistent with its being an artifact of nonhuman technology, namely a light sail, one problem with the consistency of his thesis struck me.
A root problem with Loeb’s thinking that I have noted at length here is the unproblematic spontaneity of the very idea of nonhuman, extraterrestrial technology of the kind Loeb proposes ‘Oumuamua might be. It’s precisely the way the idea seems unquestionable, even as a speculation, that I argue is a mark of its being ideological and calling for scrutiny. (Interested readers are encouraged to click on the ‘Avi Loeb’ tag to access previous posts on this topic).
However, aside from “merely” philosophical reflection if not critique of Loeb’s thesis, one might propose a problem with its internal consistency. If we suppose ‘Oumuamua to be a light sail, then it must have originated, however long ago, from a relatively advanced extraterrestrial civilization. If said civilization were sufficiently sophisticated to imagine, design, and manufacture a light sail, is it not likely the same civilization had at the same time if not earlier developed a form of artificial communication that employed some frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, e.g., radio? If this same civilization were to possess some such communications technology, then it seems arguable that signals from this civilization would have reached earth long in advance of a light sail, given their relative velocities. In the same way, long before any light sail or subluminal spacecraft from earth will reach another solar system, all the EM emissions from our communications technology will have reached that solar system long in advance. Therefore, subject to a whole raft of assumptions, admittedly, imagining a light sail arriving in our solar system suggests that signals, intentional or otherwise, from the home civilization of said light sail will have alerted us to that civilization’s existence long in advance of the arrival of their spacecraft.
Just a thought, and one I doubt is original to me. (Nor should the implications of this argument for the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis for the origin of UFOs/UAP be underestimated…).
Amid the breathless suspense leading up to Friday’s release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP, I spun a discussion thread with a persistent interlocutor around the theory that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft, aka the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis or ETH. In the course of that back and forth, he linked a YouTube video on the matter. Aside from the ETH, the video’s interviewees pursued two lines of thought that touched on other, more urgent concerns…
It’s a commonplace in ufology and the more scientifically-formal search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to contemplate the consequences of contact between humankind and a much more technologically-advanced extraterrestrial species (not race) in terms of that between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, etc. For example, Tyler Cowen, a student of “Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico”, making the comparison, refers to “the Aztec empire, which met its doom when a technologically superior conqueror showed up: Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards.” The devastating consequences of this encounter are almost always couched in terms of “culture shock”, the approach adopted for instance by Dolan and Zabel in their A.D. After Disclosure.
It is perhaps no accident that those who speak in these terms are white, North American men; how such speculations are framed by interested parties outside this demographic in the rest of the world, I am unsure. What is striking about thinking of the consequences of contact in terms of culture shock is that it passes over if not represses the more painful facts of the matter implied in Stephen Hawking’s more laconic observation: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
The topic is timely because when we Canadians, for example, “look at ourselves” in the light of two fields of unmarked graves recently discovered on the grounds of residential schools what is revealed is that the disruption of the cultures of the First Nations is not so much due to some catastrophic shift in world-view, however radically unsettling, but the overt and covert violence of settler colonialism, i.e., that the very foundation of the Canadian nation state is premissed on the liquidation of the indigenous population as a means to exploiting the natural resources within its borders unhindered. Canada’s First Nations didn’t experience a spiritual crisis encountering the French, Dutch, and English, but have suffered being displaced from their lands and resources through violence or subterfuge and having their children forcefully removed to residential schools whose explicit purpose was summed up by Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-32: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department…” The shock to their culture was the result of intentional cultural genocide.
There is a not unrelated paradoxical irony at play in the way that one will hear in the same breath blithe speculations about civilizations thousands if not a billion years ahead of our own and reflections on “the Great Silence”, that we have yet to discover some bio- or technosignature of extraterrestrial life of a sufficiently-advanced extraterrestrial civilization.
Anyone familiar with the work that goes on here in the Skunkworks will be familiar with the implications of that first idea, but, here, I want to remark two other problems with this notion of so long-lived a civilization. On the one hand, one might ask “Whose culture?”, i.e., how to conceive of a culture or civilization that transcends the life of its biological substrate, the species of which it is a culture; a culture that outlives the species whose culture it is stretches the imagination, even moreso if that substrate is imagined to be transbiological, as such “artificial life” (if it can be said to possess a culture at all) would be more likely to change at an even greater rate than a biological species does under the pressures of natural selection. On the other hand, if we “look at ourselves” we find that one of the longest-lived, continuous cultures on earth is that of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, about 60,000 years. What underwrites the longterm stability of such cultures, however, is their having found a sustainable form of life, one rooted in a more harmonious relation to earth’s life support systems than that ecocidal relation characteristic of the so-called advanced, high-tech societies.
When it comes to the Great Silence, in an early articulation of an idea now termed “the Great Filter”, Sagan and Shklovsky in 1966 accounted for it by proposing that perhaps “it is the fate of all such civilizations to destroy themselves before they are much further along,” Unlike the pattern of repression that characterizes thoughts about contact, in this case UFO discourse has been explicitly related to existential threats to human civilization if not homo sapiens itself, from Jung’s proposals in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky to George Adamski‘s Venusians and Klaatu of the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still to recently revived stories of UFOs interfering with nuclear missiles to Vallée’s and Harris’ recent Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret the UFO has been associated with the danger posed by the advent and proliferation of nuclear weapons. More recently, beginning especially with the growing number of abduction stories in the 1980s, the mythology has come to weave itself into the more general ecological crisis, with abductees reporting they have been shown scenes of environmental destruction (a theme taken up by the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still). Unsurprisingly, e.g., believers in and proponents of Disclosure (official transparency about the reality of and longstanding relations with extraterrestrial civilizations) maintain that zero-point or free-energy extraterrestrial technology can replace our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels. However much the UFO orbits these existential threats, the fantasies this association gives rise to by way of solutions are as weighty as the angel hair that used to fall from the flying saucers: either the extraterrestrial intervention is prophetic (revealing a truth, however much we already know it) or the solution to the problems technological development brings with it is just more technology. In either case, it seems, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to the social order than underwrites present-day technological change, capitalism.
In all these speculations about technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations one can discern a play of revelation and concealment. On the one hand, thoughts about contact or the Great Silence relate and are related to mundane, human matters: the history of colonization during the Age of (so-called) Discovery or the resilience and sustainability of culture and civilization especially under the strain of increasing ecological pressures. On the other hand, on inspection, these reflections betray a repressed, social content that is the mark of the ideological. The (on-going) material violence of European colonization becomes a merely spiritual shock; “civilization” is abstracted from the bodies of the civilized, as if it might be possessed of some immaterial immortality, while, simultaneously, the real, long-lived cultures on earth are overlooked precisely because their form of life contradicts the self-estimation of the advanced societies as having superseded these more primitive contemporaries (i.e., precisely that these cultures are our contemporaries, that they are, therefore, no less modern than ourselves is what must be denied); and the solution to the problems “development” causes is thought to be ever more development, reinforcing the status quo at the base of the problem.
Just as UFOs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) appear to fly free of gravity and the physical laws of inertia and momentum, so too the thinking about or related to them frees itself from the material base (society, culture, and nature) of its ideas to flit around as nimbly, but, just as the countless stories of UFOs might be said to constitute a myth, a collective dream, the truth of these speculations is no less their grave, unconscious, repressed, all-too-earthly content.
As for that preliminary assessment on UAP? What of it? Here’s something on a leaked draft of a report on an arguably more urgent matter…
My earlier notice (if not review) of Jacques Vallée’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret has two parts: the first, critical; the second, recuperative. In this second part, I try to salvage some significance from a book that, taken at face value, fails (the evidence is pure hearsay, presented in a barely coherent and, hence, unpersuasive manner, a presentation undermined further by a lack of sharp focus aggravated by frequent digressions, etc.). This salvage attempt is premissed on the insight I express in the notice: Trinity seems to grasp, “in however a tentative, repressed (unconscious) manner” the symbolic (mythological) significance of the story it reconstitutes and relates.
Here, I want to dilate and clarify that insight, venturing a reading of the text unanchored from the intentions of its authors (that it is an investigation of a real event, an early UFO crash/retrieval). The reading I essay here is an exercise or experiment, whose working assumption is that the authors know but repress there is nothing to the story and that its significance is not factual but symbolic. I most emphatically do not pretend to “put the authors on the analyst’s couch” to thereby reveal some obscured fact of the text, but, instead, put into play this faux “psychoanalytic” approach heuristically to account for both how the book is composed and to secure the symbolic truth that Vallée intuits but is unable to grasp as such (It’s as if Vallée “knows not what he writes”).
Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of the book is how it approaches the topic of the crash, retrieval, and debris in an often indirect manner, a lack of focus aggravated by apparently unmotivated digressions (i.e., their pertinence is not immediately clear). Roughly one third of the book is composed of interviews conducted by Harris with the three primary witnesses, “lightly edited… for clarity” (16) by Vallée who also interjects passages of commentary. These interviews are neither the focussed, dogged interrogations that would have dug into the case in the depth needed to make it even initially persuasive, nor have they been pruned down to all the better frame the details pertinent to the book’s argument.What possible relevance, for example, can Paola Harris’ and (the relative of one of the primary witnesses) Sabrina Padilla’s being afraid of snakes have (256)? The same can be asked of many pages, e.g., in the Foreword, the first chapter (that concerns the development and detonation of the first atom bombs), or Chapter Thirteen, the story of a visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1964. Were Trinity a work of literature, these formal features (the interviews and digressions) might be said to be mirrored at the level of content in the “poisonous” plants (Cocklebur and Nightshade) that suddenly one year are found to cover “the initial oval landing site” (78), supposedly sown by the Bureau of Land Management, and the intentional and natural changes to the landscape that buried what debris might remain “twenty feet down” (79). That is to say that the diffuse interviews obscure the matter while the digressions bury it under ever more text. It’s as if the authors seek to avoid the void at the core of the book,—the absence of the crashed craft, its pilots, the four different kinds of debris the witnesses describe, etc.—the dearth of hard evidence that becomes, as it were, a bottomless pit around which a screen of distraction must be erected and ever more text shoveled in to fill. I do not mean to suggest that the authors are trying to deceive the reader; rather that, following the heuristic premise that governs my reading, the stylistic features I remark appear as ways of concealing the poverty of their case from themselves and to compensate for this lack.
Aside from these positive features, there are, as it were, negative ones, which appear to function in the same, symptomatic ways. In my notice, I remark the persistent orthographic lapses, the typos that riddle the text, a most striking one, the spelling of a book’s title two different ways on facing pages (134-5). Such overt errors are of a piece with the poor organization of the text and its digressions. The way the accused will hem and haw and stumble over their words as they dissemble to conceal their guilt from their interrogators, the text’s lapses are a kind of nervous tic, indicative of graver problems.They are, as it were, a veiled confession, hairline fractures in the surface of the argument’s edifice that hint at the gaping, fatal cracks in its foundation. In addition, both how the book supports and fails to support its claims is suggestive. The first endnote, on the Plains of Saint Augustin or Agustin, is cribbed from Wikipedia, a not-even tertiary source that would fail to pass muster in a college-level research paper. In the footnote on page 33, the authors note that they were put on the trail to William Brothy, an Army Air Force pilot who is said to have seen both the smoke from the crash and the two primary witnesses (307), via the Amazon website. Moreover, many claims are left simply hanging. For example, Vallée states in many of the interviews conducted after the book’s release that the primary witnesses had binoculars as good as those possessed by the army. What binoculars, specifically, did the witnesses have? How does one know? What was the standard set of field glasses issued to the army in the American Southwest at the time? Most importantly, what are the optical specifications of these binoculars and what light can these specifications shed on the testimony of the witnesses concerning what they saw? Many such basic forensic considerations are passed over in silence. Such shoddy, negligent research both reveals and conceals the vacuity of the book’s case. Citing Wikipedia and the Amazon website, for instance, seems an admission that the matter is unworthy of more authoritative legitimation, while omitting or refusing to cite supporting evidence for the most basic yet essential claims ironically “covers up” the baselessness of the book’s argument. It’s as if the authors could not bear to look too closely into the matter for fear of revealing to themselves the absolute poverty of the case they seek to make. I am not claiming in fact that the authors are incompetent or fraudulent, only that the flaws in the text can be read as so many “returns of the repressed”.
One could analyze, as well, the way the authors “protest too much”, e.g., with regards to the reliability of the witnesses (seven and nine years old at the time of the incident), but I would turn now to how the unconscious awareness of the physical, factual vacuity of the case precipitates an awareness, in however no less repressed a manner, of the rich symbolic content of the story the authors tell. Ironically, the francophone Vallée will be the first to understand that the French word histoire (like the German Geschichte) denotes both ‘history’ (a chronicle of factual events) and ‘story’ (a fictional narrative). It is no less the case that contes and récits (roughly, tales) are histoires. Vallée and Harris purport to be relating an histoire but in truth they tell an histoire. Perhaps it’s this brisure (hinge) in the polysemy of ‘histoire‘ that swings Vallée’s thinking (however consciously) from informational patterns to literary texture or folkloric motifs:
Everything, in this story, appears to be going in threes…Three atomic bombs were exploded in the summer of 1945…There were three live Campamochas aboard the crashed craft…there were three ‘short ugly guys’ who ‘started to put things into the mind‘ of the sheepherder…Also, at least three metallic artifacts were recovered… (149)
Vallée remarks, too, “three objects of interest”: Fat Man (the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki), the “avocado” UFO observed by the witnesses, and the Jumbo test enclosure on display at the Trinity site (150), to which one could add the number of direct and indirect witnesses and the three peaks that give the Trinity site its name and the book its title. He collates, as well, an additional trio, comparing the San Antonio crash with the Socorro and Valensole landing cases (pp. 183 ff.).
Vallée wrestles with the idea that the details of the story he and Harris investigate are in some profound way meaningful: “Jose and Reme were witnesses to an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols between the brightest scientists in the world and something else, undoubtedly the product of another mind…” [my emphasis] (282). Regarding the stories of UFO crashes and retrievals, in part or in whole, he wonders
What if those UFO devices had been designed so they could not be reverse-engineered by people with our current level of knowledge and social development? What if their target was at a different level? At a symbolic level, about our relationship to life? At a psychic level, about our relationship to the universe? What if they contained an existential warning? [my emphasis] (287)
At one level, we witness here Vallée speculating about the crash, its spatiotemporal proximity to the detonation of the first atom bomb, the puzzling earthliness of the crashed object, the irrationality of its colliding with a radio tower, etc., ultimately imagining the whole event to be possibly an attempted communication from a nonhuman intelligence. Vallée’s struggle, however, in light of the reading I pursue here, is a process of realization, as if he were waking from a dream whose manifest content is the “literal” understanding of the story of the crash and whose latent content occurs precisely at a “symbolic level.” The story of the crash is “an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols“, between the witnesses and researchers and “another mind”, just not a nonhuman, extraterrestrial, ultratraterrestrial, interdimensional, or transtemporal mind, but that of the inhuman Other (following Lacan), the Unconscious, Creative, Collective, or otherwise, a dialogue that only becomes audible and one we can take part in only once we suspend our belief in the factual truth of the story Trinity tells, i.e., along the lines of the heuristic (“as if”) reading I here propose and sketch out.
This is perhaps “the best kept secret” of Trinity , that it is best understood not as a true histoire (and Kevin Randle, among others, has given us good reason not take it so) but as an uncannily unconscious fiction (histoire), a book that the science-fiction novelist Jacques Vallée failed to write. (And I am hardly alone in remarking the book’s possessing “all the hallmarks of a fictive account.”) As such, it can enter the engagement with “the myth of things seen in the skies” that extends from Jung to Lynch and beyond, into both the conscious and unconscious elaboration of the myth and the unending Traumwerk of understanding what it is we are trying to tell ourselves that we cannot otherwise face in the light of day and reason.
In the wake of my notice of Jacques Vallée’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, Drew Williamson drew my attention to Giuliano Marinkovic’s contention that passages of Vallée’s 2006/7 novel Stratagem were based on his acquaintance with the Wilson/Davis documents that came to light mid-2019.
Regarding these documents, John Greenewald writes:
Allegedly, [the Wilson/Davis documents] contain the notes of Dr. Eric Davis, Chief Science Officer at EarthTech International, founded by Dr. Hal Puthoff. They outline a 2002 meeting between Dr. Davis, and Admiral Thomas Ray Wilson, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. During this meeting, many things were discussed including Admiral Wilson stating he was denied access to UFO related information.
Marinkovic makes the case, based on close textual scrutiny, that the scenario described in the ninth chapter of Vallée’s novel echoes details in the Wilson/Davis documents, from which Marinkovic infers that these “similarities from Stratagem go beyond accidental chance, [which] could indicate that Vallée probably had his own copy of the Wilson leak at least from 2005, and probably before.”
Marinkovic’s suspicion is premissed on the notion that “Fictional work is always a great platform to combine reality, knowledge and imagination,” by which I take him to mean that, especially in this case, art imitates life, such that Vallée’s fiction is an artful reworking and veiled revelation of facts that pre-exist its composition, thereby indirectly confirming the authenticity of the documents in question.
Greenewald, however, proposes a richly consequential alternative reading of the Wilson/Davis documents, namely, that they are a draft of a movie or television script, both in their formatting and textual features, prompted by the demand for such material with the recent ending of the X-Files. I don’t mean to imply that Vallée plagiarizes Davis, but that they were each working up the same ufological material, each to their own creative ends.
Indeed, as Greenewald points out, “this particular story involving Admiral Wilson has been around since at least 2001… It first made an appearance in a lecture by Dr. Steven Greer, given in Portland, Oregon on September 12, 2001.” Anyone familiar with the UFO mythology will recognize in the scenario variously developed by Greer, Davis, and Vallée a well-known theme or motif, that of a secretive group with access to debris or other materials (if not Extraterrestrial Biological Entities) retrieved from crashed flying saucers working to reverse engineer this recovered technology for various, often nefarious, ends. That the United States Air Force, government, or other entity knows more than it’s telling is a suspicion that goes back to the books of Donald Keyhoe and was or remains the basis for the believability of the MJ-12 documents. (We imagine Kevin Randle’s recently-published UFOs and the Deep State might shed some light on the matter, but the Research Library here at these Skunkworks has yet to secure its copy…).
What follows from these reflections is that what Marinkovic is dealing with is a purely textual phenomenon, ironically demonstrated by his method of argument: close textual analysis. What leads Marinkovic to the suspicions he voices (that Vallée’s novel is a fictional confirmation of the truth of the Wilson/Davis documents) is, I propose, the assumption that language need ultimately refer to some extralinguistic reality that anchors its truth. That the two texts he analyzes might be one moment of “intertextuality” or “dissemination” (text referring not outside itself but to another text…), this instance but one in an endless chain of such intratextual reference, doesn’t seem to occur to him.
A giddily dizzying twist is Vallée’s discussion of the Wilson/Davis documents in Trinity (pp. 280 ff., and notes (49), (50), and (51)). He prefaces his presentation of the matter with the words, “According to various reports…” Note (50) describes the provenance of the documents: “A copy of Eric Davis’ 15-page notes from the meeting [with Wilson] was among the private papers of astronaut Edgar Mitchell. After the information [the notes?] was acquired by Australian researcher James Rigney, it evidently ended up on the web following Captain Mitchell’s death…” (312). Despite the tentativeness of how he introduces the matter (“According to various reports…”), Vallée tellingly concludes: “…while the situation seems absurdly beyond everything we have been taught about the workings of our government, the fact is that we don’t know the nature of what is being hidden” (my emphasis) (281). Here, that Vallée believes some matter is indeed “being hidden” suggests he seems to take the documents at face value.
One need note how Vallée begins ambiguously (neither confirming nor denying the authenticity of the notes, leaving the question open) but ends (arguably) affirming the notes’ truth. That Vallée himself seems to accept the documents as authentic hardly confirms, however, their authenticity. What’s curious is that Vallée nowhere asserts he had had access to the notes via Davis, as Marinkovic suggests, rather that he (Vallée) had to learn of them and their contents like everyone else, via their acquisition and release by Rigney. We are left with several, incompatible possibilities. It may be that Vallée, for some reason, is dissembling in Trinity, that he in fact had access to the Wilson/Davis notes (regardless of their authenticity), imaginably via Davis himself, which would confirm Marinkovic’s close reading. Alternatively, Vallée is being truthful, in which case the textual parallels Marinkovic so persuasively lays out are a startling coincidence. Or it may be Davis was himself inspired by Vallée’s fictional treatment of the ufological motif in question to compose his own, fictional televisual treatment of a well-known scenario (which, of course, assumes Davis is indeed the author of the documents…). There are, doubtless, other possibilities I overlook here, but imagining and examining each it turn remains in the realm of speculation.
However much “the situation seems absurdly beyond everything we have been taught about the workings of our government”, it hardly seems beyond the absurdity the cognoscenti have learned to expect to find in the workings of ufology. And however much a truth might be said to remain hidden, to quote the all-too-often misconstrued words of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in the case of the Wilson/Davis documents it seems that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”.
I ended my review of Jacques Vallée’s and Paolo Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret noting that the book, because of its suggesting a connection between the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP!) crash it investigates, finds “its place between the covert fictions of George Adamski (whose Venusians came to warn us of the dangers of atomic energy) and the overt fiction of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Since, I’ve become aware of certain uncanny motifs Trinity and Twin Peaks share.
Vallée has made no secret of his intuiting a connection between the Trinity “test”, “the emergence of our civilization into, essentially, the nuclear age,” and the San Antonio crash. What crashed was said to be egg-shaped (like an avocado). From a damaged side of the ship, diminutive pilots were said to have emerged, who were compared to Praying Mantises, Fire Ants, or Jerusalem Crickets.
It’s hardly unique to perceive the advent of atomic weapons as a fateful development in human history. For Vallée, evidence of our having entered the Atomic Age precipitated a non-human intervention, however ambiguous. In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Season 3, Episode 8, the Trinity test, too, disturbs a barrier between our world and some other, opening the way for no less mysterious, inhuman agents (the “Woodsmen”) and unnatural evil. The otherworldly origin of these beings and others is tied into the UFO mythology by Lynch’s recasting Project Blue Book (that thematically rimes with the series’ motif of “the Blue Rose”) as an investigation into just these beings and their nature.
In Episode 8, the Trinity test is followed in the next scene by the arrival of the Woodsmen through a weird portal in an abandoned convenience store somewhere in the American Southwest. The action shifts to an otherworldly void, where an amorphous if feminine figure emits an ectoplasmic vomit.
This extrusion seems a stream of unnatural evil that will manifest itself in our mundane reality in various ways. One of these is the landing of an egg (some visible in the still, above) in the general vicinity of the Trinity test and the convenience store, which will hatch a weird frog-moth hybrid that eventually makes its way into the mouth and down the throat of a hapless young woman, to possess or impregnate her.
The parallels are as striking as they are mystifying: the Trinity test is supernaturally momentous, triggering an opening between worlds and the intrusion into ours of the denizens of that other. In both imaginings (and Vallée’s and Harris’ is an imagining, being a reconstruction from hearsay), this intrusion manifests as an egg out of which emerge unnatural (however animal-like) beings. Here, I only register these shared motifs and venture no further speculations (though some suggest themselves: the oval shape of the first A-bombs and the connotations of the egg in general, the unnaturalness of mutated creatures, etc.), other than to note that the source of “the myth of things seen in the skies” works in mysterious ways!
On finishing Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity, the reader would be forgiven if they wondered if the “Jacques Vallée” who co-authored this book were the same “Jacques Vallée” credited with writing Revelations or the recently re-issued Passport to Magonia. Where the last volume is, at least in certain circles, highly-prized for being inventive and groundbreaking and Revelations is a focussed, critical examination of the stories about alien abduction, crashed flying saucers and dead aliens, secret alien bases and cattle mutilation, Trinity is an unfocussed, raggedly-composed, eye-rollingly credulous mess of a book.
It would be a tedious exercise to catalogue its manifold failings. While Vallée speaks of himself as a scientist and even imagines scientists reading the book (286), Trinity is no work of science, scholarship, or even investigative journalism. Indeed, it reads like a first draft, in sore need of a thorough editing for content and structure, let alone a proof-reading. The main body of the book is composed of transcripts of interviews conducted by Harris (silently edited by Vallée “for clarity” (16)) with the three witnesses to a “UFO crash” avant le lettre and subsequent matters: Jose Padilla; Jose’s friend, Remigio Baca; and Sabrina Padilla, Jose’s niece. These interviews are interspersed by commentaries by Vallée to highlight their salient points and interlarded with chapters, often mystifyingly digressive, about matters historical and ufological: the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, the history of the American Southwest, the Socorro and Valensole landings, etc. Although the book contains footnotes, endnotes, a bibliography, and index, this scholarly apparatus is erratic and brow-furrowing. It’s too often unclear why well-known figures, such as Robert Oppenheimer, require an endnote and how the data related is pertinent to the book’s argument. Factual claims essential to the case that Vallée and Harris want to make far more often than not are left unsupported, rendering much of the book so much hearsay. An added insult are the typos that pepper the text. Important place names can’t even be spelled consistently: The Plains of San Augustin are the “Plains of San Agustin” (299) in the footnote explaining the location, the San Antonio crash site is as often “San Antonito”—even in the title of the book’s second chapter—, and Ryan Wood’s book Majic Eyes Only (134) becomes Magic Eyes Only on the facing page.
Flaws in organization, scholarly apparatus, and orthography could be forgiven if the book’s content were so earth-shatteringly urgent its hasty composition and issue were justified by the need to make its matter known. But rumours of the crash the book investigates at length if not in depth are hardly new to ufological ears: among others, Timothy Good, “a careful chronicler of modern ufology” (15), remarks the story in his 2007 book Need to Know. The case the authors want to make for the veracity if not significance of the event is buried under page after page of leisurely digressions (as noted above) and undermined by their credulity. Among too many examples, one can point to the seemingly uncritical acceptance of the testimony of Philip Corso (of which Vallée has been critical in the past) and the apparent belief in the authenticity of the Wilson / Davis document (that John Greenewald has explained in far more down-to-earth and persuasive terms).
Were Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret a serious work, it might have begun with a brief introduction as to how the case in question caught the attention of the authors and why they thought it worth their and the reader’s time to investigate (i.e., the book’s eleven-page foreword would be reduced to a few sentences). A survey of the literature might have been followed by a clear, focussed description and narration of the case, rigorously supported by citations to the research that substantiates it, with references where applicable to the complete, unedited transcripts, perhaps contained in an appendix. (The work of Kevin Randle and Joshua Cutchin are exemplary in this regard). An analysis and conclusion would have ended the book. Had Trinity been so researched and organized, and written with a sharp focus and scientific / scholarly objectivity, then we’d have a book that could claim more serious attention.
So, if Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret really can’t be counted as a scientific, scholarly, or journalistic work, to what genre does it belong? The answer is that it is a work of ufology. As unsurprising as such a categorization is, it implies more than, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson might imagine. The genre cuts a wide swath, from contactee George Adamski‘s Flying Saucers Have Landed to the more serious attempts at scientific ufology of Harley D. Rutledge and Peter A. Sturrock. It is possible, however, as I have argued at length here at the Skunkworks, to bracket the truth-claims of ufological media (and it is clearly a multimedia, cultural phenomenon) and study it as a kind of folklore or mythology-in-the-making, what Jung called “a visionary rumour”.
From this point of view Trinity is singular, for it is, to my knowledge, the first work of ufology to grasp, in however a tentative, repressed (unconscious) manner, this folkloric, textual dimension. In Chapter Twelve, “A Trinity of Secrets”, Vallée perceives a numerical, if not numerological, pattern:
Everything, in this story, appears to be going in threes…Three atomic bombs were exploded in the summer of 1945…There were three live Campamochas aboard the crashed craft…there were three ‘short ugly guys’ who ‘started to put things into the mind‘ of the sheepherder…Also, at least three metallic artifacts were recovered… (149)
Vallée also remarks the “three objects of interest”: Fat Man (the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki), the “avocado” UFO observed by the witnesses, and the Jumbo test enclosure on display at the Trinity site (150), to which one could add the number of direct and indirect witnesses and the three peaks that give the Trinity site its name and the book its title. Further, he collates an additional trio, comparing the San Antonio crash with the Socorro and Valensole landing cases (pp. 183 ff.). Vallée notices, too, that “the Aurora object [an airship said to have crashed in Aurora, Texas in 1897], like the oval craft seen by Padilla and Baca, hit a tower before it went crashing to the ground: two similar accidents, half a century apart…” (117). Often, Vallée refers to himself as an information scientist, interested in finding patterns in the data, signal in the noise. Philosophers would speak here of the play of identity and difference, literary and music critics of theme and variation, folklorists of motifs, and semioticians of the repetitions that constitute signs.
Vallée is clearly struck by the spatiotemporal proximity of the Trinity atom bomb test and the San Antonio crash and retrieval: the coincidence is significant, meaningful if not, strictly, synchronicitous. Indeed, in the conclusion, he grasps (at) the hermeneutic rather than the physical, scientific meaning of the event he and Harris have investigated: “Jose and Reme were witnesses to an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols between the brightest scientists in the world and something else, undoubtedly the product of another mind…” [my emphasis] (282). Reflecting on the stories of UFO crashes and retrievals, in part or in whole, he reflects
What if those UFO devices had been designed so they could not be reverse-engineered by people with our current level of knowledge and social development? What if their target was at a different level? At a symbolic level, about our relationship to life? At a psychic level, about our relationship to the universe? What if they contained an existential warning? [my emphasis]( 287)
He even attempts to divine the meaning of the event, interpreting it as “a signal, from the point of view of better scientists somewhere, that our survival may not be an inflexible requirement of the universe?” (288).
It’s as if Vallée “knows not what he writes”, his focus on investigating and explaining a physical event interferes with his understanding its symbolic cache, however much he does grasp the event possesses one. The thinker who first coined the expression ‘nihilism’ in the Eighteenth Century, Friedrich Jacobi, used it to refer to the implications of the worldview of Spinoza and the then-burgeoning natural sciences: a self-enclosed cosmos of cause-and-effect was without meaning; the sciences can describe and explain how the world is, but cannot account for the fact that it is. This nihilism, the natural sciences’ overlooking or bypassing the question of the meaning of what they study, blocks Vallée from being able to move into a purely semiotic, hermeneutic analysis of the matter. The crash can only be a signal, a communication of sorts, because the sciences can grasp language only in its communicative, informational function, not, ironically, in its mythopoetic, “symbolic” dimension. Events like that under investigation in his and Harris’ book do indeed bear witness to an “an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols“, between the witnesses and researchers and “another mind”, just not a nonhuman, extraterrestrial, ultratraterrestrial, interdimensional, or transtemporal mind, but that of the inhuman Other (following Lacan), the Unconscious, Creative, Collective, or otherwise.
As we have argued at length from the start, the “myth of things seen in the sky” can be grasped precisely as a spontaneously-generated, anonymous folklore that operates at “a symbolic level, about our relationship to life.” As a mythology or folklore, it operates in a semantic space that is both and neither true and false. That is, the countless stories about UFOs and their occupants, both direct (e.g, a sighting report) and indirect (e.g., the speculations Vallée himself indulges around the Wilson / Davis document (pp. 280 ff.)) are taken for fact by some and as a curious fiction by others. Vallée attempts to grasp the meaning of a physical event and finds himself caught between the Scylla of the fictive and the Charybdis of fact, unwilling or unable to be lifted by the former because of his investment in the latter.
As I remarked in my first, brief reflection on the announcement and eventual publication of Vallée’s and Harris’ book, in an interview with the authors, Jimmy Church’s stated belief, that the San Antonio crash “could be another Roswell”, is likely prophetic, not in foretelling the future (though that, too), but in its seeing into the truth of the matter. Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, especially because of its failings, all the work it leaves to be done, might well spawn another shelf in the UFO crash retrieval library, like Stanton Friedman’s initial research did for the Roswell crash. And, as such, Trinity will take its place between the covert fictions of George Adamski (whose Venusians came to warn us of the dangers of atomic energy) and the overt fiction of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which ties the Trinity test to analogous and no less grave or eerily symbolic developments.
Regular visitors to these Skunkworks can imagine how our interest was piqued by the headline “Philosopher UFOlogist says humans are not ready to make contact”. The Skunkworks Research Library secured the (self-published) book in question, Adrian Rudnyk’s The Assessment: The Arrival of Extraterrestrials, and a brief notice of it might be forthcoming, but, here, I want to essay the more profound way that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and speculations about intelligent, technologically-advanced extraterrestrial life is more “philosophical” than Rudnyk seems to perceive or SETI and its collaborators would themselves probably be prepared to admit.
A driving thesis of the critical and creative work here is that the very idea of a technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilization is ideological, i.e, the form of one society and culture of one species on earth is held up as paradigmatic and natural. So-called “advanced” society (that of the so-called “First World”) imagines itself to be, in Francis Fukuyama‘s expression, “the end [the final goal] of history”. This assumption underwrites untroubled speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and culture: if some life evolves “intelligence” (like that displayed by technologically-advanced terrestrial societies), then that intelligence will likewise develop technologies along lines analogous to the development of earthly technologies, such that it makes sense to speak of these extraterrestrial technologies as being less or more advanced than those possessed by homo sapiens at a given time. The homogeneity of such development is even thought sufficient to be able to speak intelligibly about technologies hundreds, thousands, and even millions upon millions of years “more advanced”…
A most recent example of this kind of “thinking” is that of Avi Loeb. Loeb is best known among SETI and UFO enthusiasts for proposing and arguing that the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system, 1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua was in fact an alien artifact, a “technological relic.” Such astroarchaeological artifacts would be valuable to find, study, and reverse engineer, Loeb argues, because “it might be a way of short-cutting into our future because it would take us many years to develop the same technology, so there are lots of benefits that I can imagine for humanity from just finding technological relics in space.” I’ve addressed Loeb’s views here before, both specifically and more generally. Aside from these criticisms, in light of Arik Kershenbaum’s The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals of Earth Reveal About Aliens—and Ourselves, I’m prompted add another, addressed to Loeb’s self-confessed love of philosophy.
Kershenbaum’s book by and large is more level-headed than Loeb’s recent Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, extrapolating, as it does, what we know about the evolution of life on earth to potential life forms on other planets. Such an exercise does not fall prey to ideological blindness the way that Loeb et al. do, as it assumes only that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry (and, by extension, evolution) hold throughout the galaxy if not known universe. However, when pushed, Kershenbaum can’t help but fall into the same trap as all those who take the idea of technological, extraterrestrial civilizations “seriously”. In a recent interview with the author, Kermit Pattison relates
Kershenbaum predicts that some aliens will exhibit social cooperation, technology and language… He even posits that aliens will share the quality we hold most dear: intelligence. “We all want to believe in intelligent aliens,” he writes. “It seems inevitable that they will, in fact, exist.”
That such a scenario “seems inevitable” reveals that Kershenbaum and those who think like him are no longer engaged in scientific but metaphysical speculation. Indeed, the idea of this inevitability is arguably grounded in Plato’s theory of Forms, which precedes even the term ‘metaphysics’.
Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas is arguably as much an invention of Plato’s interpreters as of the author of the dialogues himself. That being said, one can all-to-quickly summarize the theory in its received form as follows:
The world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of the world presented to our senses.
If we think of these Forms as designs or plans, the temporal connotations of these words suggests just how Kershenbaum’s prediction about extraterrestrial intelligence flowering in technology are in a sense Platonic. It’s as life were possessed of a potential to develop what we know as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that it might actualize to a greater or lesser degree. Some organisms (e.g., homo sapiens) fulfill this potential, others (slime mold?) do not, while others “inevitably” actualize it even more than we have. It’s the inevitability of the idea, that we are sure to encounter technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that essentializes it. It’s part of the essence (Form, Idea…) of life that it has the potential to develop “intelligence” and subsequently “technology”. Homo sapiens are merely an instantiation of the actualization of this essential potential.
The fetishistic character of this idea that Western civilization is somehow a cosmic norm is revealed all the more starkly when we reflect that the “intelligence” operative in STEM (instrumental, calculative reason) and the technology it produces (and, no less, is, in a sense, produced by) is hardly even the norm among human beings, let alone life on earth. The narrowing down of rationality to technical problem solving is a perversity peculiar to a particular society, very restricted in space and time, ironically, one whose own science undercuts and overturns this blinkered, proud self-regard; at the same time, this very science is itself hardly a universal potential aspect of culture, being but one, and a very new one, among many no less functional “systems of knowledge” that have enabled groups of homo sapiens to survive and flourish.
However much Kerschenbaum, Loeb, and others might protest, that our science is governed by often all-too unconscious metaphysical assumptions is well-known to philosophers, among them, surely, Diane W Pasulka. In her American Cosmic, she invokes Martin Heidegger‘s notion of technology in the course of her argument that technology and that represented by the UFO has taken on a religious aura in recent history. Heidegger is well-known for (among other things) articulating what he called “the History of Being”, i.e., a particular trajectory of the basic question of ontology, “What is ‘being’?” from Plato and Aristotle, who first explicitly posed the question, down to himself, who poses it and recasts it again as “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time. What the history of Being uncovers is that the question received a definitive answer among the ancient Greeks, one that held sway until Heidegger’s resuscitation of the question and “destruction” of the history of ontology to free the inquiry from its sedimented, guiding assumptions. Plato and Aristotle posited that “being is presence”, an answer to the question that was passed down to Christian and Medieval civilization, and inherited as an unspoken presupposition of what became the natural sciences.
Aside from whether one accepts Heidegger’s history of Being, it is surely ironic that, on the one hand, Kershenbaum invokes the precariously chance-ridden process of evolution to imagine life on other worlds, while remaining somehow blind to the even more aleatoric process that leads to any given culture’s having ended up where it is, while, on the other, Loeb would argue that humankind should be humble, because it is not unique! What greater hubris is there than to project one’s own peculiar society as somehow characteristic of life in the cosmos? In this regard, Kershenbaum and Loeb not only unknowingly take up inherited Platonic notions but arguably also in a parody of the Ptolemaic universe place this latest, if not last, moment of Western civilization at the centre of, if not the universe, then its workings, an instance of a norm no less universal than the speed of light.
Sometimes bits of ufological and related news catch my attention. Either due to my time/energy or interests, these may not be provocative enough to inspire a whole post, so, on such occasions, under the category “Sightings”, I at least try to leave some trace of the thoughts these ephemera did in fact prompt. This week, there are three…
“…the issue is entirely political…”
That the topic of UFOs (UAP) is charged is surely an understatement. As an element of Twentieth and Twenty-first Century world culture, the UFO hovers over fields from science to religion, national security to science fiction, and even politics, in various senses both popular and more philosophical, gets caught up and drawn into its vortex.
Amid the increasingly bigger media splash UFOs are making since the breakout New York Times articles is the appearance of the topic on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, where Sean Cahil and Christopher Mellon as well as Mick West were recently interviewed. Apart from the question of just what the videos in question actually show, that the so-called “mainstream media” is covering UAP (UFOs) prompted the following comment on a Facebook group I belong to: “this is no longer a scientific issue. Now that 60 Minutes has made UFOs mainstream the issue is entirely political. Already we have the left wing CNN vs. the right wing FOX News. Now Chris Cuomo vs. Tucker Carlson,” an angle on the politics of American media shared by Robert Sheaffer: “On the right, we have Tucker Carlson on Fox News, and the New York Post. On the left, we have the Washington Post and The New York Times.” (Though I’m unsure just how, e.g., Cuomo’s and Carlson’s views on the matter significantly differ …).
The commenter’s take is backed up by a relatively recent Gallup poll conducted in the first half of August 2019. published just this month (May 2021): “Which comes closer to your view: some UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies, or all UFO sightings can be explained by human activity on Earth or natural phenomenon?” Again, apart from the unremarkable (if not problematic) question itself, what’s curious is the very first remark concerning the poll’s findings: “This is one topic on which Republicans and Democrats agree: 30% of the former and 32% of the latter describe UFOs as alien spacecraft from other planets. Belief is a bit higher among political independents, at 38%.”
That a topic, however “popular”, such as UFOs should get caught up in the cultural polarization that characterizes U.S. society presently in a social media comment is not too surprising, but when the question of an individual’s identifying as “Republican” or “Democrat” becomes a default question for, in this case, a Gallup poll, “politics” becomes an sign of a more grave, social malady. (With regard to the question of what someone believes about UFOs, why should party allegiance trump, e.g., education, religion, race, or income?). Clearly, UFOs are not political—a matter of social consequence—the way that gun, abortion, or voting rights are; it’s just that, in American media, any topic that catches its attention is immediately parsed in this all-too-familiar, polarized fashion.
There are, however, more profound senses in which the UFO is political, or, more properly, can be understood politically, i.e. ideologically. On the one hand, one can speak of Left or Right “ideologies”, the explicit set of beliefs and values adhered to by a group, the “everyday” (popular, vulgar) sense of the term. ‘Ideology’, however, denotes more usefully precisely those beliefs about society and its values that are unspoken and often shared across the (vulgar) political spectrum, assumptions that demarcate and maintain that social context within which differences, such as those between American Republicans and Democrats, play out…
On the one hand, Trotskyist Posadists and paranoid, right-wing reactionaries, such as Bill Cooper, both believe that UFOs are spaceships from a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization, but their (vulgar) ideological differences obscure the radically ideological content of the belief that UFOs are advanced, unearthly technology. The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis as such is ideological. As I formulated this thesis most recently:
However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.
Something’s going on, but we don’t know what it is…
The recent media attention being paid to UAP focusses on videos and photographs all leaked from the U.S. Navy, whether 2015’s “Gimbal” and “Go Fast” videos, 2004’s “FLIR1” or “Tic Tac” video, the more recent “Pyramid” footage, or the “Metal Blimp w/ payload”, “Sphere”, and “Acorn” photographs (the featured image for this post, above) or now a video of a USO or “transmedium” vehicle from the USS Omaha. All these are problematic in two, provocative ways. First, none, on close examination, very persuasively show anything unusual let alone unearthly. The three photographs arguably picture party balloons (the Metal Blimp, a shark, and the Acorn, a Batman balloon) or something just out of focus (the Sphere). The Pyramid appears to be nothing more than a camera artifact. And the Gimbal, Go Fast, Tic Tac, and USS Omaha videos have their proposed mundane explanations, too. More troubling is how this video/photographic evidence is simultaneously officially stamped as “authentic” (taken by military personnel) but their provenance remains in the dark. So, many have posed the question as to why such unimpressive, officially-sanctioned “evidence” is being released, disseminated, and spun the way it is (among them, most recently, Andrew Follett).
From the first ripples of this splash (that gave us History’s Unidentified) to the present waves (or foam) of interest and commentary, the purported Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) have been presented as potential threats. Setting aside the proposals of Steven Greer and Michael Salla (…), that this spin is part of the preparation for a false flag alien invasion, others propose that the threat narrative is a way for the military industrial complex to secure greater support or funding. But this proposal is unconvincing, given the famously bloated defense budget of the U.S. that withstands every attempt to deflate it even a little. There’s already a Space Force, and, given that the threats posed by Russia, China, and even global warming are all officially acknowledged and monitored, what need would the Pentagon have to resort to such easily-debunked evidence of UAP incursions to make a case for itself? It’s precisely the shoddiness of the proffered “evidence” that seems to persuade only hardcore believers, themselves only a fraction of that roughly a third of Americans who will entertain the idea that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, that gives me pause for thought. Even if these UAP are spun as earthly, foreign aerospace developments (as would seem to be suggested by the news about questionable patents for exotic propulsion systems, also part of the story), already-accepted real-world threats are hardly aggravated by unpersuasive video or photographic evidence, however “official”…
Time will tell, or, as is often the case when it comes to UFOs/UAP, it won’t, creating an abyss for neverending speculation to fill Google’s YouTube servers and swell the bookshelves of UFOphiles…
It’s just so much more complicated…
Finally, first in response to a blog post by Christ Rutkowski, then at the prompting of The Anomalist‘s Bill Murphy, I essayed some thoughts on the causes and character of the kind of thinking that goes into our post-truth iterations of New World Order, etc. conspiracy theorizing. I stand by the genealogy and the psychological and social aspects of the phenomenon I sketch, but, the matter being very complicated, I failed to remark two, essential dimensions. First, the disruption of our sensus communis has been undertaken by agents both domestic and foreign: there would be no “post-truth” crisis were it not for Trump and his ilk echoing, in their own farcical way, the Nazi rhetoric directed against die Lügenpresse and foreign (and now domestic) actors working to misinform and increasingly polarize the citizenry. More profoundly, the advent of digital and social media is overwhelmingly pertinent, both as a general condition governing the dissemination of information, both in terms of its content and velocity, and as the technology weaponized by the aforementioned actors. As well, I assumed anyone interested in the topic would be familiar with the ways that propaganda (from Operation Mockingbird to the Iraqi WMD scandal) and government secrecy (from Watergate to “deep events” such as the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11, among many other instances) had long tilled the soil for the crop we reap today.
Since I first responded to Chris Rutkowski’s short tirade against what he calls “metamodernism” William Murphy has been “looking for [me to cast] more light upon that larger-than-forteana malady [of post-truth populism and its conspiracy theories] and its ‘cure.'” So, here, I lay out some admittedly provisional thoughts on our “post-truth” moment, that populist worldview that articulates itself by appeal to “alternative facts” and in the form of various, contemporary reiterations of New World Order conspiracy theory, e.g., QAnon or other theories woven around “the Great Reset”, etc. “Populism” as such is of course a wider and deeper social phenomenon….
Roots in the Reformation sprout in Postmodernity
In my last foray, I posited that the phenomenon of post-truth, ironically (or dialectically), finds its deepest roots in modernity, first, in the shattering and ultimate atomization of spiritual authority in the Reformation, which democratized the meaning of scripture. This religious development has its rational corollary in the Enlightenment; Immanuel Kant famously exhorted his readers to “dare to know” (sapere aude), to have the courage to use their reason independently, to think for themselves (however much his argument in “What is Enlightenment?” is more nuanced and sophisticated than that). Just as faith and reason came to be housed in the individual, in a not unrelated way, so society in general, with the advent of capitalism and liberal democracy, after a long process, arrives at a maximum of atomization, with citizens being reduced to consumers or, with the gig economy, “entrepreneurs of themselves” and with near (if hardly unproblematic) universal franchise. Ironically (or dialectically) this distribution of power results in an ever greater financial, material insecurity and a no less widening gap between the individual citizen and the political decisions that impact their lives.
Along with the crumbling of a single, unified religious authority, the edifice of Aristotlean natural philosophy began to crack under the strain of the Scientific Revolution. The consequence of these developments is that the theological notion of a ready-made world that can be truly represented by the no-less divine gifts of thought and speech can no longer be assumed, which demands a new foundation for truth and knowledge be uncovered or laid down. The attempt to secure just such a firm, first principle begins with Descartes, who, famously, grounds certainty on the self-aware subject. Descartes’ solution along with those of Spinoza, Reinhold, Fichte, and Hegel all spectacularly fail, however. Two consequences followed: on the one hand, the natural sciences, encouraged by the successes of ever-more refined specialization, continued to proliferate to the point where the thought of an underlying unity that might harmonize them, if not with each other, at least with the lifeworld, became unsupportable; on the other, the philosophical implications of this abyss at the foundation of knowledge led to, among others, the tentative, open-ended reflections of the Jena Romantics. One of the most famous of their number, Friedrich Schlegel, sets out the position of modern (or postmodern) knowledge-without-a-first-principle in two fragments: “Philosophy is an epos, begins in the middle;” thus, “Demonstrations in philosophy are just demonstrations in the sense of the language of the art of military strategy. It is no better with [philosophical] legitimations than with political ones; in the sciences one first of all occupies a terrain and then proves one’s right to it afterward.”
In the trope that governs Schlegel’s latter fragment one can see the beginning of a line of thought that can be traced through the Marxist concept of ideology, Nietzsche’s metaphor of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors…”, Foucault’s archaeologies of power/knowledge, down to today’s (parody of) “postmodern” sensibility, for which all claims to truth or knowledge are merely rhetorical ploys in a language game of domination. The post-truth mind is not so much one that denies truth or facts but one that holds that claims to truth and knowledge are all invested or otherwise weaponized to the point that partial truths, distortions, or outright lies are deployed to enforce a worldview and maintain or entrench societal control. Since attempts to maintain control must come from those already in power, suspicion is therefore directed at institutions and authorities, “elites”; post-truth is consequently a “populist” attitude that sets alternative worldviews over against that perceived to maintain the status quo.
“Social existence determines consciousness”: desperate inspiration
However much post-truth is bound up with Twenty-First Century populism, populism itself is no more homogeneous than the beliefs held by its members. American populism (Trumpism, in its most recent iteration) must be thought differently than its contemporary Brazilian, Filipino, Hungarian, Polish, or Turkish varieties, as all these nations have markedly different histories than the oldest modern democracy (or republic, if you insist); the soil that roots these varieties differs, well, radically. Nevertheless, what can be said of all these populisms, including the French Yellow Vest movement, is that they are arguably underwritten by a frustrated impatience with the material precarity brought about by decades of neoliberalism. This crisis is aggravated by the recalcitrance of national governments and the no less opaque, indifferent workings of the global order. If nature as the object of scientific research is now possessed of a complexity that transcends the ability of anyone to encompass it in a unifying vision, then how much moreso are our cultural, social, economic, political lives, compounded as such complexity is by the wilful obfuscation of private and public institutions, whether in the form of tobacco or fossil fuel corporations’ lies about the harmlessness of their products and activities or officials speaking about weapons of mass destruction or trickle down economics?
Slavoj Žižek in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown already characterized the reaction to this situation that gives rise to our present versions of New World Order (or Great Reset) conspiracy theories:
Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!’ Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess—which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required.
What results are attempts to resolve the problematic complexity that are simultaneously overly simplistic (identifying that one “agent lurking behind the scenes”, e.g., “the Jew”, “the Illuminati”, “Elites”, etc.) and endlessly complicated (as exemplified by the way conspiracy theories modify themselves, shift ground and expand in response to criticisms and new “information”). Populist, post-truth worldviews (if they can be termed such) are thus a kind of vulgar ideology critique, attempts to disperse the lies that maintain an increasingly insufferable status quo and replace them with a “true” description and explanation of the workings of the world. The post-truth populist does indeed touch on a truth: society represents itself to itself (in a partial and incoherent way) that naturalizes the purely contingent, historical state of affairs to the benefit of those who materially profit from the status quo. The wild fictiveness, however, of the resulting counter “theory” of society results from at least two features. On the one hand is the aforementioned drive to (over)simplification; on the other, how the competing, conspiratorial worldview is constructed and modified: its “alternative facts” are chosen not so much because they are epistemically robust but because they are in the first instance contrary to the official story. “Facts” are chosen for their rhetorical (persuasive), not their truth, value. For example, what’s important about the numbers reported by the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System is not in fact how they are meant to be understood but how, taken in a perverse way, they contradict the official view (“vaccines are rigorously tested and safe”) and support the alternate view (“even the government’s own numbers show thousands of deaths and injuries!”). The persuasiveness of “alternative facts” is ultimately not their factual but their emotional truth. They give a “rational” support to bitterly-felt grievances and a kind of purchase to attack, even if only discursively (e.g., in the Facebook posts I share), the powers that be. Perhaps this understanding goes some little way to illuminating the irony that those who most vociferously denounce more mainstream media as “fake news” or propaganda are themselves often the first to fall for the most egregiously flimsy and unsupported counterclaims.
Unsurprisingly, on inspection, the post-truth position falls prey to its own premises. It is not that truth and falsity have been abandoned: the populist appeal to alternative facts couldn’t function without an appeal to truth and facts: the official facts are accused of being distortions or outright lies, while the alternative facts give the otherwise suppressed or marginalized truth of the matter. The populist has grasped that claims to truth possess a rhetorical power independent of their truth value, i.e. even a convincing lie can be persuasive, and the picture of the world presented by the mainstream media and the powers-that-be are seen to be just such persuasive lies, lies in the service of power and oppression (which, in a sense, as ideology, they are, just not as an elaborate fiction constructed by a small, secretive if not secret elite that controls dictatorially the world’s media all in order to hide its nefarious agenda …). Over against the lies of officialdom are the true facts of the matter as revealed by alternative sources of news and information. Of course, as far as mainstream, consensus reality is concerned, these alternative facts are mistaken and indeed can be shown to be so. There was no “Kraken” to be released; the generals who arranged to have Trump elected to drain the swamp and oust the Deep State didn’t move to prevent Biden from taking office, nor did they arrest, try, and execute Obama and Hilary Clinton at Guantanamo; the authorized Covid vaccines were indeed tested on animals, etc. Ironically, the claim to truth of alternative facts is grounded in the first instance on their contradicting the official version, i.e., inspection reveals them to be the mere rhetorical ploys the populist accuses the official facts to be. The post-truth populist might be said to be cynical—“They lie to promote their agenda, why shouldn’t I?”—but for the fact (!) that they do in fact (!!) seem to believe their alternative facts are true. Aside from being unconscious of the irony of their thinking in this regard, the post-truth populist seems insulated against the repeated, relentless assault on the edifice of fictions that make up their worldview by cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon long recognized by social psychologists: each clear refutation (e.g., “the storm” foretold by Q failed to materialize, etc.) only inspires the believer to double down in their belief. Psychologist Jovan Byford sums it up well:
Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.
At root, the far out views held by post-truth populists are not in the first instance (necessarily) rooted in stupidity, ignorance, or sheer perversity, but a desperate need to understand if not alleviate real material precarity and suffering or a perceived threat to well-being or cultural identity. That this “resistance” is carried out almost exclusively at the symbolic level (sharing social media posts, collectively defending and elaborating the theory, or even waving flags or signs), even or especially when it expresses itself in the spectacle of the January 6 riots, ironically reveals the truth of a canonical formulation of the early Marx from 1859’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” That is, on the one hand, the appeal to alternative facts is a subliminal appeal for an alternative social arrangement (their material conditions and their unhappiness with them motivate the populists’ symbolic revolt), while, on the other, the elaboration of a counter discourse is insufficient to alter those conditions that give rise to the populist’s frustrated exasperation (how the populist views the world has no real purchase to “determine their existence”): the conspiratorial worldview promises to reveal how the world works with one hand, while withdrawing any solution to this horrible truth it uncovers with the other. Perhaps precisely because conspiracy theories lack that pragmatic dimension that would answer the question, “What is to be done?” they inspire such incoherent, real-world interventions, from the Oklahoma City Bombing, to Pizzagate, to the burning of 5G telephone towers, or, more generally, to the election of relatively unhinged politicians or the spread of misinformation that cultures, e.g., vaccine hesitancy, right on down to the casualties suffered during the January 6 Capital Riot. Such desperate, impetuous actions serve only to underline all the more how byzantine fictions built up around, e.g., the Great Reset, function ideologically: they are “imaginary solutions to real problems” that, materially, leave everything as it is.
We are left facing a rather melancholy impasse. The rupture of a social sensus communis we experience, e.g., in the political / cultural polarization in the U.S., has been long in coming, arguably landing with those Protestant refugees who arrived on the Mayflower. Albert Hofstadter outlines the history of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in his 1963 lecture, article, and, later, book from the American War of Independence down to his day, and many scholars since, especially since the 1980s (with the rise of militia groups throughout the United States) and 1990s (with the advent of the internet) have studied the phenomenon of what today we know too well as “conspiracy theories”, furrowing their collective brows trying to make sense of it. The approach I adopt here would see the problem as being baked into the very foundations of modern, “Western” civilization itself, both at the level of “consciousness” (what we think) and “social existence” (how we in fact live together). The problem—and it is a problem, as it causes grave troubles, from the political impasse of American political life to hindering actions to mitigate the present pandemic’s harm let alone climate change, all the way to mob violence and violent death—cannot be countered only at the symbolic level (the level of “consciousness”), either through educational reform (increased literacy, numeracy, and general education) or better communication (about, e.g., the virus itself, public health measures, the science of vaccines, etc.). The anxiety, resentment, and anger that motivate the turn to post-truth agonisms is rooted in “social existence”, and the appeal of alternative facts and theories about their causes will not lose their allure until these anxieties are addressed at their root.
If, as Jung so long back proposed, the Flying Saucer “mythology of things seen in the sky” is a “visionary rumour”, then the event of the announcement, then retraction, and final appearance of Jacques Vallee’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: the Best Kept Secret fits this characterization doubly. Most pertinently, the book’s argument is primarily based on three witness accounts, i.e. word of mouth; no less interestingly has been the furor of the book’s online reception. In either case, this dual phenomenon apart from the truth of that “best kept secret” is thought-provoking. I hazard a few of these preliminary thoughts, here.
Even before the e-version of the book was released, there was no little discussion, to put it mildly, about Vallee’s engaging with what Leonard Stringfield so aptly termed “crash / retrieval syndrome”, as the book deals with a presumed 1945 crash and retrieval of what only later came to be called a UFO. This apparent shift from Vallee’s more sophisticated if not uncontroversial approach to the UFO phenomenon, from a broader-based, cultural, sociological, psychological one to one more “nuts-and-bolts” caused almost as much consternation as his collaborating with Paola Leopizzi Harris, a researcher of relatively questionable reputation. Moreover, the event the book investigates was hardly unknown to researchers, so any new interest in so stale a case itself was curious.
Barbara Fisher seeks to spin Vallee’s new work as being more consistent with his modus operandi than would seem at first blush, applying a very approximate thematic comparison between the cases Vallee engages with in the documentary Witness of Another World and in his new co-authored book. I don’t find the shared motifs she posits very compelling, but the suggestion that we look at the tale of the Trinity event as folklore holds promise. On the one hand, the Trinity event is very much identifiable as a type of ufological narrative, that of the crash / retrieval: a UFO is seen to crash, its alien pilots or occupants emerge, local authorities are called in (in this case a father and officer of the law) or appear (namely, the army), the UFO is carted off, and the area more-or-less sanitized but for some stray debris the witnesses are able to surreptitiously recover and retain, all motifs common enough to be subjected to the pioneering kind of analysis developed by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale.
More damningly (or more interestingly), however, the witness testimony around the event is no less (inter)textual. Kevin Randle bases his skepticism of the story in part on the many instances where the account of the supposed 1945 event quotes well-known testimony from the later, much more famous Roswell event. Reme Baca’s description of a piece of “memory metal” he found echoes an analogous description by Robert Smith, interviewed by Randle and Don Schmitt in their research into the Roswell UFO crash. Moreover, both Reme Baca and Jose Padilla, again, echo Roswell witness Bill Brazel about the retrieval’s being carried out at one point by “four soldiers”.
Aside from these rich, textual and narratological features, the Trinity story also invokes at least two pieces of debris. As in other stories of its kind, whether pieces of memory-metal, metamaterials, fibreoptic filaments avant le lettre, or even recovered aliens, dead or alive, all these, aside from their strictly evidentiary value, undoubtedly possess a profound meaning. The character of this significance has been compared to that possessed by religious relics, whether splinters of the One True Cross or the incorruptible bodies of saints or parts thereof. There are important ways the meaning of such crash debris is emphatically not like that of religious relics. Nevertheless, that they are clung to so fiercely as evidencing the truth of the mythology, often in spite of very compelling forensic findings, testifies to the part they play in a belief system.
As Jimmy Church observes in his recent interview with the authors, “This could be another Roswell!”. I suggest here that Church’s words are prophetic, not in the sense that Trinity and Roswell are analogous, real world events, but that the former, with the publication of Vallee’s and Harris’ book, stands to become another seed for an endlessly branching and proliferating story, like that of the latter, regardless of what kernel of truth each might possess. Indeed, the Trinity case, both in itself and its initial reception, seems more grist for a sociological mill, another example of the genesis, development, and elaboration of a visionary rumour, if not a new religion.
When The Anomalist (3 May 2021) was kind enough to share my response to Chris Rutkowski’s “The Metamodern UFO (or UAP) (or USO) (or UAO) (or whatever)“, it hoped I might elucidate that “pressing concern” of post-truth populism that so gets Rutkowski’s goat and poses such a threat to the effective functioning of contemporary society.
Unhappily, I’m hardly sure what therapy to apply to this uneasiness if not “dis-ease” with epistemic authority if not truth itself, though if one googles “how to talk to a conspiracy theorist” one will find some proposals. I have, however, speculated as to the cultural conditions that might be said to underwrite if not cause this latter-day crisis of faith.
As I observed in my reflections prompted by Rutkowski’s complaint, ufologically speaking, the present tension between reason and irrationalism goes back to the mutual disdain between the earliest forensic, scientific ufologists and the Contactees and their followers. Not two years ago, concerning a recent replay of this division, I addressed a question raised by Håkan Blomqvist, “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”, in the course of which I sketched out some thoughts on modern-day post-truth populism. What I wrote then still strikes me as not unilluminating. In a word, the condition for the post-truth “metamodernity” Rutkowski so decries is precisely what he terms “modernism”: the more or less contemporaneous advent of the Scientific (and then the Industrial) Revolution, Capitalism, and liberal democracy (as well as the Reformation and Age of so-called Discovery…). As to what is to be done…
Two years ago I wrote…underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.
A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.
Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.
Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.
Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.
In a recent screed, Chris Rutkowski bemoans the fact that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ beliefs that include, for example, that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft.”
Rutkowski blames the ascendancy of such irrationality, not only in ufology but in the general culture as well (witness the viral misinformation debunked daily by sites such as Lead Stories or Politifact), on what he terms “metamodernism”, what he describes as a kind of thinking that freely revises and reconfigures material with no regard to the original significance of these materials or their potential contradiction. Aside from the examples he cites (‘a “remix” in current music, “modding” a video game so it plays differently, and a “reboot” of a film’), what he describes also brings to mind the various ways quantum mechanics is brought to bear on matters of spirituality or consciousness. He links such thinking to the following consequence:
Nothing I can say or do can possibly shift you from any of those views or claims, regardless of any evidence that exists to show you are in error (“wrong”) or that your belief is false, even if your own evidence is disputable or comes from doubtful sources or it has alternative possible explanations.
See? Nothing is true, but conversely, nothing is false.
Anyone who’s engaged in even a patient, respectful dialogue with, e.g., an anti-vaxxer friend is likely to recognize what Rutkowski describes. On another hand, the kind of thinking he calls “metamodern” is arguably not as irredeemably irrational as he seems to believe.
Scholar of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Kripal, addresses precisely that “metamodern” mashup of quantum physics and reflections on consciousness in a recent interview. Referring to a recent debate on the topic between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, he remarks:
So, first of all, I don’t think Deepak is offering anything particularly dogmatic. I think he’s trying to bring worlds together. And why not? As for Sam’s reply, I think this is how this desperately needed synthesis is resisted, frankly. It’s as if he were saying: ‘Only quantum physicists should talk about quantum mechanics.’ But why? That assumption seems to me to lead to cultural disasters, if not to open cultural schizophrenia. Now, of course, people who are going to talk about the implications of quantum mechanics are going to make mistakes about what quantum mechanics is. That’s OK. So correct them and help them get in on the conversation. But don’t tell us that we can’t have this conversation. We’re made of quantum processes, too, you know. If we can let that conversation happen, I think it will eventually lead to a future answer, or set of answers, and in all kinds of genres, including and especially artistic and science fiction ones. We need a new imagination.
Aside from how high or low one holds Sam Harris or Deepak Chopra, Kripal (a thinker not above criticism, either) is, I think, arguing in favour of a kind of “metamodernism”, a thinking that will bring into conversation discourses hitherto seen as distant if not incompatible. Neither Kripal nor Rutkowski know, I think, that such recombinant, synthetic thinking can claim an older and more respectable ancestry in that foment of reflection, speculation, and creation following in the wake of Kant’s Critical Philosophy, namely Jena Romanticism and German Idealism.
The history of thought that leads from the cultural crisis attending the decline of Renaissance, Classical culture, the advent of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes’ response to these developments, to Kant’s Critical Philosophy is one hard to do justice in a short space. What’s important is that the questions and problems raised by Kant’s attempt to ground knowledge in the wake of the disappearance of a ready-made world reflected in true thoughts and judgements underwritten by a Creator God and in response to Humean skepticism result in an encyclopaedically synthetic thinking that finds its prime example in the German Romantic concept of the novel as the work that contains all genres and seeks to engage if not incorporate the wildly proliferating fields of knowledge being cleared by the nascent sciences. It is the same spirit in a different guise that inspires the various recent attempts at interdisciplinarity in the academy, both rigorous and less so, that are themselves a response to the drawing of rigid, well-guarded, not always purely rational, disciplinary borders (what Kripal calls above “cultural schizophrenia”) within the modern university, an institution invented by German Romanticism out of precisely that drive to inclusivity that underwrites the idea of the Roman (novel) and Novalis’ unfinished Das Allgemeine Brouillon (Notes for a Romantic Encyclopedia). The point is that such thinking, meta-, post-, or just plain modern, need not entail the absolute demise of truth Rutkowski sees in post-truth ufology or society in general, however much it might run the risk of falling into nonsense in its gamble for new insights. The “metamodern” is hardly alone in this regard: not even the natural sciences posit that they are subject to an underlying or overarching unity; a blithe acceptance of ultimate incoherence accompanies the undoubtedly valid successful practice of every science.
Further, ufology, from the start, has been interdisciplinary: “‘hard science’ ufology’ draws on forensics, psychology, physics, meteorology, and a small library of other disciplines. The contemporary study of UFO culture is also undertaken by the human and social sciences, as well, social psychology, religious studies, and philosophy among them. The stubborn recalcitrance of what might be termed “the Hard Problem of UFO reality” has persuaded no few researchers that a more promising line of research lies in opening the problem to modes of inquiry aside from the strictly physical sciences. Here, ironically, the significance of Jung’s Flying-Saucer-as-mandala appears again, the archetype that invokes an encompassing unity of the kind posited by the Romantic novel and housed in the idea of the university.
The attentive reader will have noticed, I wager, that it’s not so much the recombinatory, synthetic character of what Rutkowski calls “metamodern” thinking that necessarily leads to post-truth so much as whatever might underwrite the post-truth mind itself and its departure from the more generally accepted canons of reason and logic. Some few distinctions might lead us to an understanding of the post-truth ufophile. We can distinguish, after a fashion, facts from truth. For example, it may not be a fact that when told the poor had no bread Marie-Antoinette answered, “Let them eat cake!”, but the anecdote no less reveals a truth about the ruling class of the day for all that. We can distinguish, further, between fact, truth, and meaning. Regarding the search for truth, the facts of nature, in his own day, whether philosophical or scientific, the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel observed, “In truth you would be distressed if the whole world, as you demand, were for once seriously to become completely comprehensible.” Schlegel is very much our contemporary here, for his point is that even if physics attained a final, unified theory and all the sciences arrived at a correct and complete description of how the world is such knowledge would still fail to illuminate the fact that the world is, that is, the question of the meaning of what is would stubbornly remain.
In this light, if we return to Rutkowski’s beef that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ another dimension of the UFO phenomenon might appear. The “metamodern” “ufologist” is less moved by the factual truth than the meaningful truth of the worldview they conjure in so freeform a way. Indeed, from the very beginning, the UFO has inspired religious sentiments and the kind of thinking Rutkowski so deplores, as any reader of Desmond Leslie’s introduction to George Adamski’s first book will know. Rutkowski’s feelings echo the disdain “serious” investigators of the phenomenon in those early years felt for the Contactees. But scholars of religion and other sociologists will be quick to point out that the Flying Saucer and, later, the UFO have always been a phenomenon of meaning apart from the undetermined facts of their physical reality. That scientific ufologists come to compete with their post-truth counterparts springs from the same fatefully confused cultural context that leads to evolutionary biologists debating believers in Intelligent Design. They may seem to debate a shared matter, but the fact of their stalled, pointless dialogue reveals otherwise.
“I’m not interested in ufos, I’m interested in what’s inside, by the message they gave me” declares a recent meme from the Raelian Movement, quoting its founder. If only those who claim that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft” were as self-aware. I agree with Rutkowski that the post-truth “ufologist” is of another order than the scientific one, that the two simply cannot enter into a mutually informative dialogue, and that any confusion between the former and the latter is lamentable, but so it has always been. What’s important, I think, is how post-truth ufologists embody a more general, no less concerning social development in their adhering to a post-truth irrationality, whose diagnosis and cure are a pressing concern, within and beyond ufology. And that’s a problem that demands a multipronged approach.
I don’t know how he does it. Philosopher Justin E. Smith, very much my contemporary, and even once a faculty member of my alma mater here in Montreal, not only functions as an academic in a French university, teaching, researching, and writing articles and books, but he maintains a Substack account where he posts juicy essays weekly. With regards just to that writing, he tells us
In case you’re curious, I spend roughly six hours writing each week’s Substack post, taking the better part of each Saturday to do it. This follows a week of reflection, of jotting notes about points I would like to include, and of course it follows many years of reading a million books, allowing them to go to work on me and colonize my inner life nearly totally.
At any rate, his latest offering harmonizes sweetly with our own obsessive critique of anthropocentric conceptions of intelligence. You can read his thoughts on the matter, here.
Of recent developments in the ufological sphere, two stand out to me: the release of a huge cache of CIA documents on UFOs and the prepublication promotion of astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book on Oumuamua and related matters. I was moved to address Loeb’s recent claims (you can hear him interviewed by Ryan Sprague here and hear him speak on the topic last spring here), but, since I have addressed the essential drift of Loeb’s speculations, however curtly, and I’m loathe to tax the patience of my readers or my own intellectual energies rehearsing the driving thesis here at Skunkworks yet again, I want to probe a not unrelated matter, an ingredient of the ufological mix since the earliest days of the modern era.
This post’s title is taken from a longer passage from Carl Jung’s ufological classic Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. In the preface, Jung observes:
In 1954, I wrote an article in the Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, in which I expressed myself in a sceptical way, though I spoke with due respect of the serious opinion of a relatively large number of air specialists who believe in the reality of Ufos…. In 1958 this interview was suddenly discovered by the world press and the ‘news’ spread like wildfire from the far West round the Earth to the far East, but—alas—in distorted form. I was quoted as a saucer-believer. I issued a statement to the United Press and gave a true version of my opinion, but this time the wire went dead: nobody, so far as I know, took any notice of it, except one German newspaper.
The moral of this story is rather interesting. As the behaviour of the press is sort of a Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable. To believe that Ufos are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.
Loeb’s recent experience harmonizes with Jung’s. Loeb recounts around the 22:00′ mark in his interview with Sprague that when he and his collaborator published their paper arguing for the possible artificial origins of Oumuamua, they experienced a “most surprising thing”, that, despite not having arranged for any publicity for their paper, it provoked “a huge, viral response from the media…”
There are, of course, myriad reasons for the media phenomenon experienced by both Jung and Loeb. An important aspect of their shared historical horizon, however, suggests the ready, public fascination for the idea of extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations springs from an urgent source. Jung, famously, however correctly, argued that flying saucers’ appearing in the skies just at the moment the Iron Curtain came down had to do precisely with the new, mortal threat of atomic war, that, from his psychological perspective, flying saucers were collective, visionary mandalas, whose circular shape made whole, at least to the visionary imagination, what humankind had split asunder in fact. Though we live now after the Cold War, the cognoscenti are quick to remind us the threat of nuclear war remains, a threat along with increasingly acute environmental degradation and global warming. There’s a grim synchronicity in Loeb’s book’s appearing hot on the heels of the publication of a widely-publicized paper in the journal Frontiers of Conservation Science titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.”
Just how do such anxieties arguably underwrite the desire to discover other “advanced” societies? Jung was right, I think, in seeing the appearance of “flying saucers from outer space” as compensating for the worries of his day. Rather than affirming the phenomenon’s dovetailing into his theory of archetypes, however, I would argue that the very idea of UFOs’ being from an advanced, technological civilization, an interpretation put forward spontaneously by the popular, scientific, and military understanding, is a response to the growing concern over the future of the earth’s so-called advanced societies. Such evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence seems to confirm that technology (as we know it) and the kind of intelligence that gives rise to it are not the result of a local, accidental coupling of natural history (evolution) and cultural change (history proper) but that of more universal regularities, echoing, perhaps, however faintly, those cosmically universal natural laws that govern physics and chemistry. That such intelligence and civilizations spring up throughout the stars suggests, furthermore, they all share the same developmental vector, from the primitive to the advanced, and that, if such regularities hold, then just as our visitors are more advanced than we are, then we, too, like them, might likewise negotiate the mortal threats that face our own civilization, enabling us to reach their heights of knowledge and technological prowess. That we might learn just such lessons from extraterrestrial civilizations we might contact has been one explicit argument for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The very idea, then, of a technologically-advanced civilization embodies a faith that technology can solve the problems technology produces, one whose creed might be said to reword Heidegger’s final, grave pronouncement that “Only a god can save us”, replacing ‘god’ with ‘technology’. What’s as remarkable as it is unremarked is how this tenet of faith is shared equally by relatively mainstream figures, such as Loeb, Diana W. Pasulka, and SETI researchers, and more outré folk, such as Jason Reza Jorjani, Steven Greer, and Raël/Claude Vorilhon.
Conversely, discovering the traces of extraterrestrial civilizations that have failed to meet the challenges ours faces could prove no less significant, as Loeb himself has proposed: “…we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.” Aside from the weakness of this speculation, the idea of such failed civilizations is based on the same assumptions as the idea of successful ones, thereby revealing their being ideological (positing a social order as natural). Imagine all we ever were to discover were extraterrestrial societies that had succumbed to war, environmental destruction, or some other form of self-annihilation. Technological development would then seem to entail its own end. Indeed, that this might very well be the case has been proposed as one explanation for “The Great Silence”, why we have yet to encounter other, extraterrestrial civilizations. We might still cling to the hope that humankind might prove the exception, that it might learn from all these other failures (à la Loeb), or we might adopt a pessimistic fatalism, doing our best despite being convinced we are ultimately doomed. In either case, advanced technological society modelled after one form of society on earth is projected as unalterable, inescapable, and universal. The pessimistic conception of technological advancement, a blinkered reification of a moment in human cultural history, arguably expresses from a technoscientific angle the sentiment of Fredric Jameson’s famous observation: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
The consequences of this technofetishism are manifold. However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.
Production continues slow here at the Skunkworks, due to personal reasons, the fact that the facility is still in the process of settling in to the new digs (thanks to the way the pandemic slows everything down), and, most pointedly, that, despite a lot happening in the field, very little has in fact changed or developed (more on that, below). To remedy the relative dearth of postings, here, therefore, I’ve resolved to try to post, more-or-less regularly, short takes with little commentary, less demanding to write, of what’s caught my attention the past week or so.
What strikes me first is the aforementioned present steadystate of ufology or of the phenomenon and its mytho/sociological import in general. On the one hand, I’ve speculated that the UFO as a vehicle of meaning, a sign, is as endlessly suggestive as any work of art, or even, more extremely, essentially mysterious. But, for a sign whose signifier never lands on its signified, the UFO’s significance seems little changed since the advent of flying saucers more-or-less post-1947.
Ufologically, no developments I’m aware of present data that has not been on the record since the phenomenon’s earliest days. The recent furour around the topic’s appearing in the mainstream media and its being taken seriously by the American government that has given rise to excited rumours about “Disclosure” are hardly unfamiliar to the cognoscenti with Donald Keyhoe’s oeuvre (well-thumbed) on their bookshelves. Exemplary is the second season of History’s Unidentified, which, in terms of the topics it addresses–UFOs near nuclear and military facilities, black triangles, sightings by commercial airline pilots, etc.–is as eye-rollingly dull as Elizondo & Co.’s speculations are risible, e.g., that black triangles observed flying slowly back and forth over the American back country are conducting a mapping operation, when we, with our relatively primitive technology, have been using much less obtrusive spy satellites for decades. Even the suggestion that UFOs (now UAPs), whether foreign or extraterrestrial, may pose a threat to national security is hardly new and is all-too-easily understood as an expression of America’s anxiety over its waning influence in a world that has moved on from its brief moment of monopolar power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc, even if it’s more likely an unimaginative bid to inspire drama and interest in the series.
Even culturally there is little that strikes me of note. Reviews of the recent documentary The Phenomenon (for example, here and here) hardly move me to rent it, seeming as it does to be a somewhat introductory review of the well-known story pushing the “reality” of the titular phenomenon and (uncritically) its possible extraterrestrial origin. On the other hand, 2018’s The Witness of Another World at least focusses on a single, compelling close encounter case not within the border of the United States, probing more its meaning for the experiencer than seeking to uncover the material “truth” underwriting the experience. In this regard, the documentary is in line with two academic books of note, D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic and David Halperin’s Intimate Alien. Both develop lines of inquiry into the religious and collective psychological significance of the UFO, respectively, but neither in a way that introduces any new findings, none new to me, anyway. Pasulka’s work proposes to trace the links between religious sentiments, technology, and the UFO, but doesn’t add to or extend very far the existing literature. Likewise, Halperin develops Jung’s theses about the UFO’s expressing human, all-too-human anxieties and aspirations in a modern guise, but neither presents a reading of Jung’s views in this regard much less a grounding defense of why we should take his approach seriously, merely assuming its applicability. I have addressed these misgivings, in general and more specifically, here.
One development of especial interest here at Skunkworks has been the appearance of three ufologically-themed books of poetry (reviews forthcoming!). First is Judith Roitman’s 2018 Roswell rewardingly read in tandem with Rane Arroyo’s earlier (2010) The Roswell Poems. Though these works went under the literary radar, two more recent books have earned a higher profile. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars, framed in part by a New-Agey exploration of the imaginative implications of Star People was a finalist for 2020’s National Book Award, and Tony Trigilio’s treatment of the Hill abduction Proof Something Happened was chosen for publication by Marsh Hawk Press in 2021 by no less than the esteemed avant-garde American poet Susan Howe. UFO poetry, seriously!
The one other datum that caught my attention of late was an article from The Baffler shared by a member of the Radio Misterioso Facebook page, “Donald Trump, Trickster God”. For my part, I am unsure just how to take the author’s contention that Donald Trump is a “personification of psychic forces”, namely one of the faces of the Trickster archetype, Loki. The article’s tone, ironic and hyperbolic, suggests it’s as much a satire of the failure of the conventional wisdom to explain the rise and enduring popularity of Trump, or, at least of those who represent the failure of such wisdom (“political reporters, consultants and pundits”, “sober, prudent, smartphone-having people”) as an explanation of his demagogic power. Corey Pein, the author, marshals Jung’s explanation of Hitler’s rise to power (set forth in Jung’s essay, “Wotan”) to shore up his own analogous attempt to understand the advent of Trump. Jung famously essayed the UFO phenomenon using the same approach (and that Halperin and Eric Ouellet have since developed), a labour I find of creative if not explanatory value. On the one hand, one needn’t invoke myth, either in its inherited or newly-minted guise, to understand, e.g., the rise of Hitler: a passing acquaintance with German history and a viewing of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will should suffice. Where Germany suffered a humiliating defeat, the Nazis offered the Germans pride in their culture and new military might. Where the populace had suffered terrible unemployment and want due to the postwar hyperinflation and the Great Depression, the Nazi regime gave it work and food. Where the nation had drifted aimlessly in the rudderless chaos of the Weimar republic (Germany having been one country for less than a century and having had little to no acquaintance with democratic institutions), der Führer offered it leadership and focus. Finally, the distraught and desperate Germans did not side with the international Communists but with the nationalist socialism the Nazis represented because of the atavistic sentiments the Nazis revived and cultured, and, most importantly, because the German corporate class, fearing Communism, sided with the Nazis and bankrolled them. These conditions, combined with the Nazis’ still unrivalled evil genius for propaganda, offer a more down-to-earth, compelling, and useful illumination of a very dark moment in European history. Of course, such explanations go only so far; there remains an obscure, singular residue of irrationality that resists explanation, but, if one is seeking a theory that might offer some praxis, better to take a materialist rather than a metaphysical or mythological approach. Happily, as I write this, the day after Joe Biden seems to have won this year’s election, with luck, the joke is on the Trickster…
Anyone who has observed ants will have noticed that as the heat rises so does the feverishness of their activity. The reason is that the increase in ambient kinetic energy accelerates the biochemical reactions that drive their metabolisms, quite literally speeding them up. With Montreal in the grip of a heat wave and the Solstice just over the horizon, as it were, it would appear, despite being an endotherm, at least my ant-soul has succumbed to the climate.
It could be I’m just picking a nit, but the cited passage above is consistent with those others about Kant in The Super Natural and Authors of the Impossible, and Kant’s philosophy seems to play a not unimportant role in Kripal’s more general views, given references to the philosopher in his books and this quotation from his latest. So, as a life-long student of philosophy in general, Kant, German Romanticism and Idealism in particular, and a painstaking scholar myself, passages like this one just get under my skin. In the first place, it’s just wrong: space and time are the forms of intuition (or sensibility), one of the two ways human beings access possible objects of knowledge, the other being thought, to which the categories of the understanding pertain. Moreover, the experience posited as contradicting Kant, doesn’t: the mother’s precognitive dream is still spatiotemporal, or it wouldn’t even make sense to call it precognitive; the dream’s manifest content merely steps out of the temporal order of waking life. It is, nevertheless, temporal, both in itself (dreams are a sequence, however disjunct, of images) and as an experience (dreams occur between falling asleep and waking).
Kripal can surely be forgiven for a single, passing, less-than-precise passage, especially in view of all the other wide-ranging, ground-breaking work he has achieved, which is far from insubstantial. I’m even tempted to give passages such as this a free pass, depending on the book’s intended audience: a work for a more general readership is surely expected and allowed to be less technically specific than one intended for his learned peers. However, the mistake in the cited passage is an error and misrepresentation, not a simplification; it wouldn’t pass in an undergraduate philosophy class and so, by the same token, really shouldn’t appear in print, regardless of the intended reader.
Nevertheless, if The Super Natural is anything to go by, what Kripal terms “the phenomenological cut” does appear to play no slight role in his more general thinking, which would entail, at some point, his presenting a more explicit rehearsal of just what he makes of Kant’s ideas, let alone addressing how that “cut” has been explored and made both more profound and subtle, both by the thinkers immediately following Kant and those since, such as Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, among others. If Kripal really wants to bring Kant’s critical philosophy to bear in a sustainably persuasive (i.e., rigorous) manner, then such work really needs be in evidence. It may well be that in one of his many papers or singly-authored or co-edited books he has set forth his position in this regard; if an interested reader can point us to the relevant publication, it would be sincerely appreciated.
Unhappily, the passage from Kripal’s latest is really only an example of a more general tendency that’s seeped into my sensorium. I have been led to make the same complaint of two recent books concerning the religious dimension of the UFO phenomenon, David Halperin’s Intimate Alien and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic. I would underline, again, how much both books deserve and demand a more thoroughgoing treatment than a (for me) passing remark in a blog post, a task I’ve resolved to fulfill. That being said, in the case of Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books (as I have argued), cultural (read: commercial) pressures seem most to blame for any evident deviations from full-throttle scholarship. However, it is nevertheless the case that Heidegger (or, at least, the post-“turn” Heidegger) plays a role in American Cosmic no less important than that of Kant in Kripal’s thinking and seems to suffer from the same handling. Despite being addressed only in the book’s introduction, Heidegger’s thinking on technology and related topics seems (to me) to come up repeatedly in discussions of the book and in conversations with the author herself. Again, I may well be irritably picking another nit, but I’d wager I’m worrying more at a red thread in Pasulka’s argument more in the manner of Derrida’s writing at length on a footnote in Heidegger’s Being and Time.
Here, I merely cite my observations concerning the use of Heidegger in American Cosmic from an earlier post: In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is: a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin: “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light [that that frame itself can become visible, an object for our thinking and, therefore, no longer fencing and controlling that thinking, invisible as the eye is to itself in seeing].
My points here are manifold. On the one hand, it is gratifying to see the German philosophical tradition being recognized for its relevance to these matters and being brought to bear. On another hand, I’m eager to see the full force of this tradition being applied, for which a deeper and more fluent understanding of that tradition is needed than I myself have witnessed. On the third hand, I look forward to following up on my intuition that Kant and Heidegger function as brîsures in Kripal’s and Pasulka’s thinking, respectively, upon which future critiques if not deconstructions (in the rigorous sense) might hinge.
The Black Vault’s John Greenewald sets out a delightfully compelling thesis concerning the Wilson Documents, widely taken to be notes of a 2002 meeting between Dr. Eric Davis and Admiral Thomas Wilson, wherein the latter (as usual) spills some juicy beans about reverse engineering of crashed alien spaceships…
Greenewald vectors in on these alleged notes from two directions: their textual features (what the learned among us would term “the philological”) and the sociocultural context of their composition. Skunkworks readers will understand right away why we take such pleasure in Greenewald’s approach…
By turning his attention for a moment away from what the notes appear to relate to how they relate it (from their content to their form), Greenewald reveals that the “notes” are demonstrably written in the form of a movie or television script, both in their formatting and textual features. His thesis is bolstered by the time of the notes’ creation: in 2002, there existed, especially in the wake of the ending of The X-Files, a demand for just such programming…
It’s pleasantly synchronicitious that Greenewald publish his views now, in light of the last post here pressing for closer attention to precisely the immediate context of any aspect of the UFO phenomenon / mythology, as well as the argument I’ve made consistently (most recently with regard to premodern “sighting reports”) concerning the cultural embeddedness of sighting reports, whether documents or pictures, and the need for the kind of attention to (historicultural) detail Greenewald demonstrates.
Until now, because of the hardcore, fact-based (and much admired, here in the Skunkworks) research engaged in over at The Black Vault, there has been little intersection or overlap of Greenewald’s concerns or approaches and my own; the coincidence here is therefore all the more happily noted!
Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky is rightly famous for being probably the first book by a well-respected cultural figure to address the UFO mystery. Not unsurprisingly, Jung fit the phenomenon into his ideas of the Collective Unconscious, the Archetypes, and synchronicity to propose that the saucers’ circularity was a timely symbol of unity, one that compensated for the existential anxieties of a war-weary and war-fearing populace in the early days of the Cold War, which had split the globe in half.
As David Halperin reminds us in his recent book Intimate Alien: the Hidden History of the UFO (pp. 42 ff.), Jung’s insight was later developed by Eric Ouellet to interpret the Belgian UFO Wave of 1989-90. The Belgian UFOs were characteristically large, silent, black triangles with white lights at the points and a red one in the centre. It is suggested, following Jung’s thoughts on flying saucers, that the pattern of three white lights and a fourth red were a manifestation of the archetype of the quaternity: the three white lights symbolizing NATO, at the time headquartered in Brussels, and the one red star, symbolizing the then-collapsing Soviet Union (the Berlin Wall fell 9 November 1989). Just as the conditions of the Cold War inspired people to see archetypal images symbolic of the then-absent unity, the surprise over this unforeseen resolution of the Cold War and resultant profound relief and euphoria evoked visions of a western Europe ascending in victory over its Communist rival.
As valuable as Jung’s proposal is, especially for a mythopoeic rendition of the UFO myth (such as that one underway here in various guises at Skunkworks), I have increasing reservations about its explanatory power. I’ve already voiced some of these in my notes on a recent podcast with Micah Hanks and Thomas E. Bullard. There, I observed that Jung’s kind of “thinking dissolves what is uniquely modern about the phenomenon as we experience and communicate it now into some vastly more general distillation of species-wide experience, occluding what light the present version of these stories might throw upon our present predicaments.”
If we return to the early days of the Cold War and Arnold’s inaugural sighting, we’re reminded that Arnold witnessed crescent, not disc, shaped craft, however prevalent the disc becomes in the following years. The manner in which Arnold’s story was modified by a journalist, the expression “flying saucer” coined and disseminated, and how those words seemed to guide and govern what people claim to have seen subsequently is a rich case history for sociology and communications studies, imaginably subject to an analytical psychological treatment as well: the journalist’s pen (or typing fingers) were merely taking dictation from the Collective Unconscious, which was answering the psychic needs of the American population of the time, including those of the journalist.
Setting aside this famous, intriguing metamorphosis of what Arnold claims to have seen, what did witnesses describe? In his disputed memo of September 1947, General Nathan Twining summarized the discs’ appearance as follows:
(1) Metallic or light reflecting surface.
(2) Absence of trail, except in a few instances where the object apparently was operating under high performance conditions.
(3) Circular or elliptical in shape, flat on bottom and domed on top.
(4) Several reports of well kept formation flights varying from three to nine objects.
(5) Normally no associated sound, except in three instances a substantial rumbling roar was noted.
(6) Level flight speeds normally above 300 knots are estimated.
At least four explanations were offered at the time (if not in Twining’s memo) to make sense of these mystifying reports: misidentifications due to “war nerves”; domestic or foreign inventions, friendly or hostile; or extraterrestrial space ships. I contend that these hypotheses are sociopsychologically suggestive in their own right, capable of revealing a deeper meaning of the appearance of the saucers without needing recourse to concepts problematic as they are grand, such as the Collective Unconscious or its archetypes.
The immediate aeronautical context informs the proposal that the sighting of what will come to be known as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) could be accounted for as paranoid misperceptions. In 2020, it is perhaps difficult to imagine how novel the skies were in 1947. The recent war had seen the first, large-scale deployment of air forces and conflict between them, perhaps most famously in the Battle of Britain. Radar itself had been deployed only in the early days of that chapter of the war and was still a very new, unfamiliar technology. Air travel itself, taken for granted today (at least before the Covid-19 outbreak), was, as it were, first taking off. The skies were under constant, anxious scrutiny, by both professional military personnel and civilians. All in all, the skies and flight were new and fraught with threat. Little wonder both qualified and unqualified observers should file unnerved and unnerving reports of aerial anomalies. Indeed, this insight might well be applied to sightings of “foo fighters” in the war-torn skies of World War Two, as well. At any rate, the psychological implications of UFOs appearing to vigilant, anxious observers are two fold. On the one hand, this explanation eases the fear that gives rise to sightings: the novelty of aerial phenomena and the heightened, wary awareness of the observer understandably lead to misidentifications; in this case, there is, in fact, no threat. On the other, that the skies are under such intense scrutiny is reassuring, as well, since, should an enemy attack, the threat will be quickly detected and answered; the nation’s skies are, in a sense, air tight.
A similar emotional logic is at work in the idea that the flying discs represented breakthrough aeronautical technology, whether ours or theirs. If they’re ours, then our technical and, by extension, military superiority is affirmed and our anxieties about a potential “hot” war with the Soviet Union are, to a degree, assuaged. If, on the other hand, the discs are evidence of an enemy nation’s technological leap, the heightened anxiety drives the fearful populace of the Free World that much more eagerly into the protective arms of the Military-Industrial Complex, steeling the public’s resolve and patriotism in the face of such a wily adversary. The same logic might have been at work in the Phantom Air Ship sightings of 1896-7, on the eve of the Spanish America War. Either the airships are examples of Yankee ingenuity, affirming American industrial and military superiority in the face of a looming conflict with a world power, or the airships are Spanish, with the same patriotic effect noted above.
Finally, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis plays into a similar, if more complex, pattern of reassurance and fear. That an extraterrestrial race is visiting earth with technology far in advance of our own suggests that they, too, at one time, faced the threat of nuclear self-annihilation (they must have at some time discovered nuclear energy in the course of their technological development) but came through; if they can, we can, and, maybe, they have come to show us the way, having witnessed, from their planets or distant stars, our detonating A-bombs. Little surprise, then, the earliest stories of landed saucers reported their pilots were peaceful, enlightened humanoid beings, come to warn us of the danger we found ourselves in. Or maybe, seeing our science and technology had split the atom, we were being observed as a preparatory step in being contacted and invited to join a larger, interplanetary if not interstellar community. Again, all would be well, better than we could have imagined. Alternatively, if the discs proved to be an extraterrestrial enemy’s scouts and probes, then, again, who better to defend us than the Cold War status quo of an America recently ascended to the status of a global power, allied with the Free World? Or, as Ronald Reagan so famously imagined, perhaps a threat to earth would unite her otherwise divided nations (again, mollifying the tensions underwriting the sightings in the first place). More cynically, one might suggest that being carried away by the mystery of the flying saucers served as an escape from more urgent, earthbound concerns.
In all these cases, the appearance of mysterious flying discs set in motion a process of thought and feeling that leads to either a relief of anxiety or a redoubled resolve in the face of it. In this light, one wonders how rational at base the three or four hypotheses cited above are, how much they are inspired or motivated by the anxieties of the time. Framing the advent of flying saucers and, later, UFOs, in the moment of their appearance in this way enables an understanding that does not stand in need of more general, and by extension more questionable, psychological theories. Indeed, the UFO becomes all the more revealing being related to its more specific spatiotemporal (historical) locality than if it is spun off to hover over all times and places, emerging from a region beyond space and time, the Collective Unconscious.
However tempting, it would be disingenuous to leave the matter here. In its own terms, the approach I venture here demands, too, that the phenomenon be examined with an eye to the local culture and what is “in the air” at the time, much the way Halperin and Ouellet reconfigure their account when they move it from the mainland United States to Belgium. This is to say, the phenomenon will always reveal something about the culture over which it appears, an insight not lost on those who mark the local inflections that differentiate North and South American ufology. The reflections, above, are, therefore, pertinent, strictly, to postwar North America. More interestingly, the canny reader will be quick to point out how the hypotheses offered above hover between three or four, a classic quaternity….
In a recent podcast, Diane W. Pasulka and host Ezra Klein discuss UFOs in the context of both Pasulka’s book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) and recent developments, mainly the U.S. Navy videos made (more) famous by To The Stars Academy and the History series Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation.
Among the many topics they explore are “book events” and the UFO and technology-as-religion. A book event is a synchronicitious discovery of a book that uncannily answers a need or question of the reader; said need can be answered, too, by other artifacts, as well, and even, imaginably, by a person: one thinks of the proverb, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.”
Around the 1:17 mark, Pasulka begins to expound on how technology might be thought of in religious terms. Her words leave me with the impression that in the research for her book a “book event” that failed to materialize was one that might have presented her with any number of versions of the paper on the Raelian Movement International my collaborator Susan Palmer and I presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in 1999, published in the journal Nova Religio the following year, then reprinted in the religious studies textbook edited by Diana Tumminia Alien Worlds (2007), and, finally, included in an updated version in Hammer’s and Rothstein’s The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements (2012).
Our paper concludes:
…the advent of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ushers in today’s dominant discourse and practices within which religions orthodox and otherwise must define themselves. The present stands within the horizon of the death of God, understood as the domination of the assumption of the immanence of the world and the consequent disappearance of the meta-physical, the super-natural, and the supersensuous (at least overtly) or their fall into the merely paranormal. The paranormal or paraphysical is that realm of nature yet to be understood (and so ultimately controlled) by science. This assumption, that science will continue along the path of discovery, knowledge, and power, naturalizes or [reifies] science and technology. When our science and technology poison the biosphere, split the atom to release potentially species-suicidal energies, and manipulate the genetic code of living organisms, humanity has taken upon itself powers and potentialities hitherto exclusively the domain of superhuman deities. That science and technology, whose worldview determines how things are, bring us to an unprecedented impasse demands they must in some way be transcended (i.e., survived). The flying saucer appears within this horizon as a symbol of just such transcendence, promising that precisely the causes of our quandary will be our means of salvation.
Readers of the posts here at Skunkworks will recognize the nascent themes explored in that early paper cultured at this site from the start.
We find it gratifying our insights are making their way into the wider world, by whatever mysterious, obscure channels.
It was just the end of last July that Rich Reynold’s over at UFO Conjectures took Skunkworks to task for not approaching “the UFO problem” as he understands it and demands everyone else, too. For my part, I thought I’d answered his concerns in a number of posts, but here we are again.
Reynolds is concerned with the question—exclusively—of the reality and nature of UFOs; Skunkworks ruminates over the meaning of the UFO mythology, if not the phenomenon. Why Reynolds insists that his is the only way or that what I’m up to here even intends to contribute to his efforts eludes me.
Rather than rehash this matter, I would direct interested parties to the following extant posts:
The post that directly answers Reynolds’ concerns is On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…” which itself links to the first, substantial post here that distinguishes the two approaches Reynolds insists on conflating or narrowing down.
My most direct rejoinder to the general question is RE: UFO Realities.
A pertinent but more tenuous probing of ufology as such can be read here: Notes towards a prolegomena to a future ufology…
Some philosophical asides would include one post applying the Kantian distinction between determinative and reflective judgements (“What IS that?!”–Notes on perceiving the anomalous) and others bringing to bear Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality (Encounter in the Desert of the Real, An Important Consequence of the “Postmodern” Reality of the UFO, and RE: Robbie Graham on UFOs and Hyperreality: An Addendum and Excursis).
Micah Hanks talks with Thomas E. Bullard concerning the folklore and reality of the UFO phenomenon. Hanks and, surely, Bullard are two with whom I share much in common on this matter, but there are some directions their conversation takes that give me pause for thought.
Not unsurprisingly, the problem of the relation between a folkloric (or sociological) study of UFO and entity encounter reports and claims concerning their physical reality or nature comes up. I’ve addressed the matter at least twice, here and, at greater length, here. Briefly, the problem Hanks and Bullard address is in the final analysis a methodologically real one. Nevertheless, it is at the same time perfectly legitimate and in fact quite fruitful for scholars such as Bullard to merely hold the question of the physical reality or nature of the phenomenon in abeyance, to merely leave it unasked, so that the meaning of the phenomenon might be examined all the more attentively. Of course, at a point, that plethora of meaning bleeds and pools into ontological questions, as Bullard is the first to admit up front.
But this methodological consideration dovetails into a more troublesome area, that has as much to do with the prejudices of Anglo-American thought as the phenomenon itself. As the research of Bullard and others has been taken to suggest, the UFO phenomenon, or more properly the UFO mythology, considered as a body of stories, because of the parallels it shares with folklore around the world, e.g., those between alien abduction and what Bullard calls “supernatural kidnap”, arguably arises from some “universal framework”. At those words, Hanks immediately brings up Jung’s Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes. Invoking universals and, even more so, universals posited to arise from the age-old, collective experience of homo sapiens, is, to say the least, problematic. The rooting of archetypes in experience betrays a need or drive for reference, as if stories must ultimately spring from what Hanks calls “a physical instigator or agent.” The same thinking applies to discussions of the Vision of Ezekiel: did he have a spontaneous religious vision, suffer some kind of psychotic break, sight a complex space ship he described the best he could, etc.? What’s passed over is that this vision is presented in a text, however strikingly original, in a recognized genre, i.e., Ezekiel’s vision does not demand any external stimulus, psychological or otherwise, but may just as easily, and more profitably I would argue, be understood as a work of prophetic literature, with no more external, real world reference than Dante’s Commedia.
More gravely is the way that such mythological thinking dissolves what is uniquely modern about the phenomenon as we experience and communicate it now into some vastly more general distillation of species-wide experience, occluding what light the present version of these stories might throw upon our present predicaments. On the one hand, Jung himself navigates the problem by attempting to explain how the anxieties unique and immediate to the postwar world evoke a response from the archetypal tailored to that world. However, on the other, I would offer, given that stories are narrated in languages in the contexts of cultures, what is most informative about the mythology is its pertinence to what is special to our present historical moment not general to the human condition as such.
Bullard himself, at the beginning and end of his conversation with Hanks, makes statements that imply this more historicist approach. Hanks quotes a passage from Bullard’s research into alien abductions, words to the effect that what is important about these stories is not so much their reference to real-world experiences as their “status as narratives.” Then, near the end of their talk (around 01:23) he pleas for an openness to novelty in thinking. I contend that what is most significant about the UFO mythology is its functioning as a manifest content of a kind of collective dream (what Jung termed a “visionary rumour”) that expresses and articulates the anxieties and aspirations unique to (our) modernity.
Nevertheless, at the same time, I’ll be the first to counter that, just as the relation between the meaning and being of UFO reports and other stories are complexly intertwined, in the same way, the mythological and historicist (ideological critical) interpretations of the mythology are both exclusive but no less mutually implicated.
At any rate, not that Hanks or Bullard need any of the infinitesimally small promotion Skunkworks might offer, I urge parties interested in their approach to the topic to listen in and let their own thoughts pipe in. Bullard begins speaking around the 00:48′ mark.
Again, the staff here at Skunkworks has received its writing assignment from the Office of Synchronicities.
In an article about the contributions of larvaceans to filtering carbon and plastic from the oceans, Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, makes an offhand observation :
“If an alien civilization from some other solar system were to send an expedition to Earth to look at the dominant life forms on this planet, they wouldn’t be up here walking around with us. They’d be exploring the deep ocean.”
Why would these aliens focus their attention on the deep oceans? Because, as the same article reminds us, “scientists estimate that more than 99 percent of the planet’s biosphere resides” there.
The same day (9 June 2020), Chris Savia at The Anomalist linked to an at-the-time unpublished article “‘First in, last out’ solution to the Fermi Paradox” by Alexander Berezin. Berezin’s states his thesis as follows:
“First in, last out” solution to the Fermi Paradox: what if the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?
I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilization would consciously wipe out other lifeforms. Most likely, they simply won’t notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it….
Berezin’s argument is both sophisticated and nuanced (and couched in some assumptions that would normally call for closer scrutiny, here); nevertheless, Berezin and Robison make a similar point. Unlike the science fiction worlds of the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises (and, n.b., no less so in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Carl Sagan’s novel Contact) or the fantastical imaginings of those who believe earth is being visited by dozens of extraterrestrial civilizations, they posit that homo sapiens would not be immediately recognized as “the dominant life form” or, more substantially, the significantly analogous Other of extraterrestrial explorers. Ironically, it is precisely the Star Trek franchise itself that recognized this problem, in the motion picture Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the aliens are cetaceans, utterly oblivious to the human population on earth and its civilization their activities threaten.
Berezin’s comparing such inadvertent destructiveness to how “a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate” is telling, as it dovetails from speculation about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to huldufolk, Real Politik and ufonauts. Famously, in some places on earth, such as Iceland, precisely such construction projects are halted because they threaten not the habitat of an endangered species, but the abode of a non-human if anthropomorphic Other with which we share this planet, as was the case just outside of Reykjavík in 2013.
Perhaps most famously the relation between the Little People and ufonauts was brought forward by Jacques Vallee in his (in some circles) classic Passport to Magonia. This identification is brought home all the more forcefully in a 1970 close encounter report from Finland, raised for renewed scrutiny just yesterday at UFO Conjectures. The two witnesses report encountering a small humanoid being descended from a classic flying saucer, which one illustrator depicts thusly:
A diminutive man, complete with pointy hat and funny nose. That the illustrator is Finnish (doubtless raised on tales of Finland’s own Fae Folk) likely influences his sketch, but the likeness of ufonauts to Little People is famously not restricted to this one, exemplary case.
As I have argued ad nauseum here, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, that UFOs are spaceships piloted by extraterrestrial beings, is risibly anthropocentric, not least in its assumption of the immediate, mutual recognition of “intelligence” between ourselves and extraterrestrials, whether piloting flying saucers or signalling by some means from their own far-distant planet. Robison and Berezin both call this assumption into question forcefully.
At the same time, Berezin’s fateful example (of the construction crew and the anthill) also invokes both how humankind runs roughshod over nonhuman life and how such behaviour is called into question and curtailed by a respect if not reverence for nonhuman life when it is humanoid. This traditional (if unconscious) reverence finds its ufological expression in the admonitions concerning nuclear weapons and energy received by the early Contactees in the 1950s and the no-less apocalyptic visions of environmental catastrophe often shown to abductees some decades later. That the appearance of flying saucers as such, as circular signs in the heavens, was a compensatory psychological response to a planet divided during the Cold War was famously set forth by Carl Jung in the earliest years of the modern ufological era.
All this is to say that both the points of view of Robison and Berezin that decentre the human being and the reports of ufonauts and Little People that centre the humanoid both critique, each in their own way, that anthropocentric hubris that grasps all other beings (and other human beings, too) as raw material, as means to ends, as being, ironically, of no account. The former places homo sapiens among all the other species of life of which it is a part, not apart from, while the latter puts a human mask on the nonhuman, again, to put homo sapiens in its place, to better secure a livable home.
This line of argument finds its limit, however, in the cultures of Turtle Island. Generally, these non-European societies both perceived nonhuman creatures and even geographical features, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, as “people” in their own right, while at the same time telling stories of diminutive Little People and Star People. This ethnological fact is cause to open another research department at the Skunkworks….
David J. Halperin, in a chapter on Raymond Palmer and the Shaver Mystery in his Intimate Alien, recounts how in an interview Eugene Steinberg asked Palmer if he thought the UFO mystery would ever be solved. “No!” Palmer replied, “…I think the mystery is only going to deepen.” Halperin amplifies on Palmer’s line of thought: mystery “is a metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind and soul.”
This sentiment echoes beyond the sphere of the UFO phenomenon and even Forteana in general, reflecting back to amplify a thought-provoking dimension of the UFO.
In the 1990 Pre-face to his assemblage of the Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, Shaking the Pumpkin, Jerome Rothenberg observes that
What the poetry transmits is not so much a sense of reverence or piety as of mystery and wonder….
The same phrase (Indian or not) turns up independently in the assertion by the surrealist master, André Breton, “that the mysteries which are not will give way some day to the great Mystery“: a reconciliation, as in the Indian instance, of dream & chance with the reality or our immediate lives.”
‘Mystery’ at root is that which remains tight-lipped. We might understand philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to be referring to Breton’s “great Mystery” when he writes in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” This is to say that the, if not an, answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is not forthcoming. Little wonder, at least as Wittgenstein’s contemporary Martin Heidegger had it, the question could be said to have motivated explicitly or tacitly the whole of Western philosophy.
More pertinently here is the way that mystery-as-such maintains itself as mystery. In the wake of Kant‘s Critical Philosophy, the question of the Absolute took on an urgency in German-language philosophy. As the poet and philosopher of the time Friedrich von Hardenberg (better know by his pen name Novalis) put it: “Everywhere we search for the Absolute but find only things.” The sense of Novalis’ fragment, however, is embedded in a German-language witticism, for Novalis writes for ‘absolute’ das Unbedingte (the undetermined) and for ‘things’ the very ordinary Dinge. That is, the Absolute is precisely that which depends upon, is related or relative to, nothing else; however, if the Absolute is to be known at all, it thereby becomes relative to or determined by the knower. For this reason, the mystical experience is the dissolution of the knower in the known. In one classical formulation, that of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:
The Divinest knowledge of God, which is received through Unknowing, is obtained in that communion which transcends the mind, when the mind, turning away from all things and then leaving even itself behind, is united to the Dazzling Rays, being from them and in them, illumined by the unsearchable depth of wisdom.
Whatever his other predilections, with regard to the question of the Absolute, Novalis was a philosopher, no mystic. The answer he and his circle proposed to the problem was that of “endless approximation.” That is, since all knowledge is relative (in the context of Kant’s philosophy, to the knowing subject), knowledge never reaches an end, but endlessly orbits or pursues its object, always from some new perspective, some new “determination”.
Novalis’ coeval, the philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, sees the same dynamic at work in the interpretation of texts. Since every word finds its sense only in the sentence in which it is found, and each sentence only in the text of which it is a part, the sense of the text in question is oriented (or determined) by its place in the totality of the work of its author, which, in turn, is determined by its place in the literary production of the language it is written in, and so forth. Interpretation, then, is an infinite task. Students of literary criticism will be reminded of the much later formulation of Jacques Derrida‘s différance: because the significance of any sign is determined by its relation to all other signs in the language, that significance spatially differs from itself (i.e., it is determined diacritically by its difference from all other signs in the abstract, synchronous structure of the language), and, in the phonic or graphic chain of any concrete (diachronic) utterance, that significance is, likewise, temporally deferred, as each successive sign and utterance is determined by the next (hence Derrida’s witty conflation of ‘differ’ and ‘defer’ in his coinage ‘differance’).
When I first read about Project Lure, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s attempt to tease flying saucers to land at its Suffield airbase in Alberta, I was struck by the ambivalence of the name. UFOs, it seemed to me, are as much “lures” themselves, teasingly visible but always just out of reach. They escape not only our attempts to grasp them as physical phenomena, leaving only traces, as reports, blurry or questionable photographs, or radar traces, but they slip between the very concepts whereby we make sense of reality, neither material nor immaterial, real or subjective, but “imaginal” or “spectral” (as M. J. Banias was the first to point out). As such, the UFO-as-sign is, after a fashion, characterized by différance, always slipping just out of our grasp (spatially), protean and ever-changing in appearance (temporally), both over time and often within the context of single sighting; like the ever-elusive “final” significance of the sign, the truth of the UFO remains tantalizingly ever out of reach.
The UFO, then, in one regard, is essentially mysterious. That is, like the question of Being (what Wittgenstein called “the mystical”) that stirred the first philosophers, the “great Mystery” that inspired both the traditional singers of North and Central “America”, the Surrealists, and others, the UFO embodies that “metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind soul.” But what “salvation” does this “state” promise? Halperin has his own answer, but, if we follow the insights of Novalis and his circle, the mystery of the UFO is a sign, endlessly proliferative of meanings, with any luck never, like Proteus, wrestled into submission and forced to give up its secret. In this respect, the UFO might be said to inspire what the poet John Keats articulated as the genius of Shakespeare, what he termed “Negative Capability”: “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Over at Mysterious Universe, Nick Redfern essays a topic dear to Skunkworks (being the site’s raison d’être), UFO poetry. However, despite accessing Poets.org’s page devoted to the topic, he somehow gets sidetracked by Jack Spicer’s joking about how “Martians” dictated his poetry, passes over the poems actually linked, and somehow, like Curt Collins at The Saucers that Time Forgot, serves up laughable doggerel instead of the more, well, serious examples, both at Poets.org (which include American poetry eminences, such as Stanley Kunitz) and like those few I remark here.
Even searching the Poetry Foundation‘s website with the keyword ‘aliens’ turns up a number of poems, some dealing overtly with aliens (one by Bob Perelman, a widely-recognized postmodern American poet) and abduction. More meaty is the link to an article on the British “Martian poets”, a school that explicitly deployed the point-of-view of the alien to reveal just how strange modern life is.
Not unlike his British counterparts, the late Missouri poet David Clewell probed well-known ufological topics, flying-saucers-as-such, Roswell, the Schirmer Encounter, and the Face on Mars. Clewell’s UFO poems are part of a more wide-ranging wander through the America of his time and place (Clewell was born in 1955), which includes drive-ins, B-movies, Cold War paranoia, and the Kennedy assassination, among more mundane matters.
Unsurprisingly, Roswell has been the focus of at least two poetry books. Rene Arroyo’s 2008 The Roswell Poems was the first to my knowledge to focus on this now-iconic incident; and I just found out about Judith Roitman’s 2018 Roswell doing my due diligence for this post.
One book-length poem that should be better known, given its author and thematic breadth and depth is Ernesto Cardenal’s Los Ovnis de Oro / Golden UFOs. Cardenal was a world-class poet, who died only this year; Golden UFOs (subtitled “The Indian Poems”) picks up on the story of the god Ibeorgun who “came in a cloud of gold / now in a flying saucer of gold” and goes on to
interweave myth, legend, history, and contemporary reality to speak to many subjects, including the assaults on the Iroquois Nation, the political and cultural life of ancient Mexico, the Ghost Dance movement, the disappearance of the buffalo, U.S. policy during the Vietnam War, and human rights in Central America.
With Cardenal’s book, the potential of the UFO as myth, as literary topic fit as any for serious, poetic treatment is established beyond a doubt.Finally (though the few examples above are hardly exhaustive) we come to Skunkworks, itself. Skunkworks functions as a kind of notebook, where I essay and develop ideas that contribute to the composition of a book-length poem with the the working title Orthoteny. This poem, parts of which are readable here under the category poetry, seeks to set forth UFO mythology as a mythology (in the words of William Burroughs) “for the Space Age.” In this regard, Orthoteny is more akin to Cardenal’s poems than the doggerel often offered up as examples of “UFO poems” or the single poems or books I describe, above. Just what that mythology is about or what it reveals about human being and the cosmos is discernible in what I’ve been posting here since the beginning. To say too much too quickly, the vast literature of ufology expresses the anxieties and aspirations of our modernity in a surreal manner that opens out onto imaginative spaces apart from and beyond the fetishization of humanity and technology that compose the manifest content of this, the nightmare of our history.
I’m unsure what eddies in the aether are stirring up certain synchronicities, but last week (17 and 18 May 2020) Ryan Sprague with Micah Hanks spoke about Medieval UFOs and Brent Swancer posted a column on “strange accounts of very old UFO crashes”.
I listened through Sprague’s and Hank’s conversation and read Swancer’s column with some impatience, despite their many virtues, as the concerns they all address are interesting and, to use the word of the day, serious, but more complex, I’d argue, than they venture to unfold. For that reason, as a kind of Public Service Announcement, I point interested parties to posts here at Skunkworks that have grappled with some of the topics Sprague, Hanks, and Swancer touch on.
Sprague’s and Hanks’ conversation is wide-ranging and orbits in general the way or ways unusual aerial phenomena are variously interpreted over time, from antiquity to the present, the hermeneutics of which I essay here.
Around the 35:00 minute mark of Sprague’s and Hanks’ discussion, the subject of Medieval sky ships is broached, specifically one narrative of the chronicler Gervase of Tilbury, that Brent Swancer also addresses. It’s curious none remark the repetition of more-or-less the same story during the Airship wave of 1896-7. An any rate, I analyze the story, especially in its character as a story or narrative, here and here.
Sprague and Hanks also probe the question of artistic representations of what some have claimed are Flying Saucers, Extraterrestrials, or Visitors. This question is one I’ve harped on repeatedly here, of the problems around understanding narratives or artifacts from distant times and cultures. The briefest treatment, I think pretty much in line with Hanks’ views, is readable here.
Around the 59:00 minute mark, Sprague and Hanks conclude talking about nonmaterial modes of communication with so-called extraterrestrials, either by means of telepathy or altered states, a topic played with poetically, here. In fact, there are a number of poetic treatments of classic and not-so classic UFO reports (including the crash at Aurora, Texas Swancer includes in his article) throughout Skunkworks, accessible under the ‘poetry‘ category.
(Much) more, of course, could be appended. The curious will likely find posts to pique their respective interests wandering through the posts here….
In various comment threads unwound from postings of M. J. Banias‘ article for Vice, “UFO Conspiracy Theorists Offer ‘Ascension’ From Our Hell World for $333“, I noticed a disturbing trend when it came to the matter of UFO New Religious Movements (NRMs). The only term used to refer to them was “cult”, and the only examples folks seem to have at their finger tips were Heaven’s Gate or the International Raëlian Movement.
As someone who came of age in a Roman Catholic school in the 1970s, “cults” (most notoriously “the Moonies” and sometimes the “Hare Krishna“) “brainwashing“, and “deprogramming” were very much front and centre, especially following the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. Popular thinking seems stalled in this era.
Anyone whose done more than cursory reading on the topic (a good starting point is the locus classicus anthology of scholarly papers, The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds) will quickly understand among UFO NRMs Heaven’s Gate, for example, is an outlier. The most well-known UFO NRMs (the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, or the Raëlians) are benignly amusing if not uninteresting from a sociological perspective. Indeed, among those who study New Religious Movements, the expression ‘cult’ has been culled as vulgarly dismissive.
Interested (i.e. serious) parties are invited to listen to a recent interview with my friend and collaborator, Dr. Susan J. Palmer, “What’s the difference between a religion and a cult?”. Dr. Palmer is the author and editor of eight books on NRMs, including two book-length studies of UFO NRMs, The Nuwaubian Nation : Black Spirituality and State Control and Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion.
Thank you for your attention.
In the past weeks, an opinion column and an interview both appeared on-line calling for UFOs to be taken more seriously, a sentiment I surely share, just not in the same way the authors likely intend or their readers understand.
“Take Those UFO Sightings More Seriously”. The UFOs Cowen has in mind specifically are those in “leaked…videos taken by U.S. navy pilots” recently released by the U.S. Department of Defense. Cowen’s column is not so much a proposal for why or how to take UFO reports seriously as much as a reflection on “the contrast between those who see this as an important question and those who think the whole thing will turn out to be an error or some kind of optical illusion.”, a Bloomberg opinion columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University, urges his readers to
For Cowen, those acquaintances of his game to speculate on the matter are of three kinds: readers of science-fiction, those “used to thinking probabilistically”, and those not put off by ufomaniacs, with their “cultish devotion to the topic.” Cowen’s second and third types are merely rational. As he puts it, that a claim “‘is almost certainly nonsense,’ [is] still a case for further investigation, as long as the word ‘almost’ remains”; by the same token, logically, no topic is invalid on grounds of guilt by association alone.
Cowen’s own interest in UFOs stems from time he spent among Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico populated by the descendants of the Aztec empire, which famously “met its doom” at the hands of the technologically-superior conquistadors, from which Cowen would draw an historical lesson (at least, that “all of a sudden you are not in charge, and that the future will be permanently different from the past, [and] … that there is more to the world than what is right before your eyes”). With this confession, and that, as a young teenager his favorite authors were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, the cat is out of the bag.
On the one hand, most charitably, we might take Cowen to be arguing for no more than intellectual humility, the admission that our knowledge of nature is limited and that what we have yet to discover might well lead to radical change. On the other, his example of the fateful encounter between Europeans and Turtle Islanders in this context might well be taken to imply his views are skewed (if not skewered) by the very same anthropocentrism that possesses those with a cultish devotion to the topic of UFOs. For the cognoscenti, the comparison between the arrival of Europeans on the shores of Turtle Island and that of no less “technologically-superior” extraterrestrials on earth is a cliché. More seriously, it uncritically (and unimaginatively) projects patterns of human ingenuity, behaviour, and history on extraterrestrial life, as if the tenuously contingent, nearly aleatoric vector of human cultural history (let alone “technology”) were somehow a transcendent, eternal Platonic Form shaping the destiny of all life in the universe. That is, the comparison assumes that technology is somehow natural to intelligent life and that it develops along fairly universal lines, such that one culture can unproblematically be said to be more or less technologically advanced than another. The same kind of thinking is expressed by the Raëlians, whose extraterrestrial Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us.
Even more suggestive is Cowen’s invocation of science fiction. Readers, if not fans, of the genre are amenable to imagining UFOs are instances of advanced technology, terrestrial or otherwise, not only because such projections are the very stuff of much of the genre, but also (and more interestingly) because most speculations about the nature of UFOs are themselves a kind of spontaneous science-fiction, as proponents of the Psychosocial Hypothesis (perhaps most notably Martin Kottmeyer) have long maintained. For those who pursue this line of thought, science fiction provides the manifest content of UFO sightings and close encounter experiences, which, in turn, provides more material for science fiction. In a word, in this regard, the UFO is hyperreal.
Cowen is not alone in wanting UFOs to be taken seriously nor in standing on the same ideological ground that roots his contention. Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at Ohio State University, already well-known for his co-authored academic paper “Sovereignty and the UFO” and his recent TEDx talk, “Wanted: A Science of UFOs”, in an interview with Vox voices ideas very much in harmony both with those who call for serious research into UFOs and those with their cultish devotion to the topic.
With regard to those recently-released U.S. Navy videos that prompt Cowen’s thoughts, Wendt’s probabilistic thinking is that odds are “51 to 49 in favor” of the videos’ picturing extraterrestrial craft; indeed, Wendt goes so far as to claim that “the Occam’s razor explanation is ETs.” Nor is Wendt shy about speculating about the visitors’ possible intentions (though it is surely uncertain just how serious to take his words, here): “They could just be intergalactic tourists. Maybe they’re looking for certain minerals. It could just be scientific curiosity.” A number of times in the interview, Wendt proposes that the visitors have been on earth a long time, as “there are medieval woodcuts that seem to show UFOs. There are UFO stories in the Bible, apparently, or at least stories that are interpreted that way.” Given they have been visible throughout human history, the question naturally arises as to why the aliens have neither kept their presence secret nor have made open contact: Wendt guesses “they have had a lot of experience with this in the past with civilizations at our stage.” The interview understandably explores the imaginable consequences of open contact, which, for Wendt, would be “the most important event in human history,” and culturally catastrophic, a scenario that, again, as with Cowen (and Stephen Hawking, who is remarked), is compared to the encounter of Europeans and Turtle Islanders, in Wendt’s case, the meeting of Montezuma and Cortes. Such a meeeting with our extraterrestrial visitors would be so destabilizing, because, for Wendt, “there’s a hubris in the scientific community, a belief that human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet, and it’s very hard to come to grips with the idea that if there are aliens here, they’re obviously much smarter than we are.”
Clearly, Wendt’s speculations are governed by the same set of assumptions about life, intelligence, and technology as Cowen’s and the ufomaniac’s. Wendt seems to take for granted that intelligence is unproblematically measurable and comparable, especially as it is expressed in technological terms (the aliens are “obviously much smarter than we are”); that technology, likewise, is measurable on a universally-applicable, sliding scale (the aliens have encountered “civilizations at our stage”); that even the intentions and values of intelligent, technological species are akin to our own (the aliens are tourists, or prospectors, or scientists). These hardly unproblematic assumptions are all the more ironic given that, for Wendt, the institution of the state is markedly “anthropocentric” and the scientific community is guilty of the hubris of believing “human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet.”
Wendt’s assumptions about technology and culture are strikingly ideological, projecting not only the narcissistic history of one culture on earth (the one that tells the story of the so-called “developed world”) onto that of all imaginable others, but going so far as to imagine prospecting and tourism as no less possibly “natural” to intelligent life. And his assumptions about intelligence are no less blinkered than those of the scientists he criticizes, for it is precisely some of those self-same scientists, whose research into animal and even plant consciousness, cognition, and intelligence, who have shattered the concept and scale of “intelligence” that allows Wendt to so casually utter judgements about human and alien intelligence. Indeed, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its relation to environmental degradation, arguably a more important event in human history then encountering some version of our First World selves (however much more “advanced”) would be the dethroning and decentering of human intelligence, ingenuity, and interests and the advent of a more sane, just, and sustainable biocentric culture and civilization, one capable of recognizing, yes, the intelligence (let alone intrinsic value) of the myriad of “alien”, i.e. nonhuman, forms of life with which we share this planet.
This critique should not be mistaken for a dismissal. Wendt is to be applauded at least for, as he says, having a plan, the project for “a ground-based network of surveillance stations” under the aegis of his nonprofit UFODATA. Indeed, almost since the advent of the modern era of the phenomenon, motivated by both concerns over national security and scientific curiosity, the reality and nature of the UFO has been subject to study with tools and methods both forensic and natural scientific. I would think any projected research along these lines would begin with a review of the available literature to discover just what had been attempted, what had been discovered (if anything), how or why not. In this regard, it strikes me as curious how efforts such as UFODATA never seem to remark these previous attempts, e.g., those of Harvey D. Rutledge’s Project Identification carried out in the early 1970s or the ongoing research into the Hessdalen Lights. In any event, such a “scientific ufology” is likely to remain with us as long as the enigma of the phenomenon and is hardly to be dismissed outright.
Of course, research of the kind Wendt proposes is hardly the only way to take UFOs seriously. The UFO undoubtedly holds a cultural place, one much more amenable to investigation. However, some more recent, humanistic approaches to the UFO have not proven as serious as they could or should be, either, given their authors’ scholarly background or the prestigious academic presses that issued their work. David J. Halperin’s Intimate Alien came out with Stanford University Press this year (2020) and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic appeared with Oxford University Press the year before. Both Halperin and Pasulka are religious studies scholars, Halperin retired from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Pasulka at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Both works (pretty much) bracket the question of the reality and nature of the UFO and their putative pilots, focussing more on the religious significance of the phenomenon and the stories about it. Both works absolutely warrant a more sustained and scrupulous reading than I venture here, but their curious lack of scholarly heft in essential respects can be sketched out briefly along with some speculations as to the editorial and cultural pressures I imagine that are to blame.
Halperin’s Intimate Alien (“The Hidden Story of the UFO”) takes up the countless stories about UFOs explicitly as a mythology, not in the sense of a system of outmoded, unfounded false beliefs, but in the sense of Carl Jung’s “modern myth of things seen in the sky”. UFOs and the reports of and rumours about them spring ultimately from the Collective Unconscious, the wellspring of all dream, myth, and art, and express something profoundly meaningful about the human condition. Indeed, Jung’s analytic psychology, with its ideas of the Collective Unconscious and Archetypes, is the theoretical foundation of Halperin’s book, yet nowhere does Halperin make anything more than the most passing, casual explanation of Jung’s theories or ideas nor a single reflection on let alone defense of their veracity.
American Cosmic, though more far-ranging in both its subject matter and field of scholarly reference, goes awry from the get-go. In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is: a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin: “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light. The reason I lay so much emphasis on this single sentence from the book’s preface is because the relation between technology and the sacred, how technology becomes an object revered and adored (if not fetishized) and the consequences of this relation for the significance of the UFO, is the red thread that runs through the argument of the entire book, arguably suturing its disparate chapters together. Thus, in both Intimate Alien and American Cosmic, essential, foundational concepts are presented in passing, as if self-evident, needing no explanation, analysis, reflection, or defense, which is neither serious in a scholarly sense nor ultimately intellectually satisfying.
Of course, it shouldn’t take too much reflection to see that I am demanding too much of these two books, because neither are, in a sense, serious, scholarly works, certainly not in the manner of Jung’s or Heidegger’s. Their style, biographical and conversational in the case of Intimate Alien, narrative and easy-going in that of American Cosmic, mark them as works by academics whose argument and presentation have been debased and polished respectively in equal measure for the sake of broader appeal (read: sales). Especially given that the genre of “UFO books” is a popular, not a specialized, one (in the way that Religious Studies books are), it’s not difficult to imagine the pressures increasingly cash-starved academic presses face (Stanford University Press recently barely avoided being shuttered altogether) to increase revenues, pressures passed on down to editors and their authors. These straits, combined with certain fashions coming to the fore in the 1980s, discernible in the light-hearted styles of literary theorist Terry Eagleton or, closer to home, Jodi Dean in Aliens in America, motivated, at the time, by the sense that academics might and should culture a readership wider than that of their specialized peers, along with a parallel loss of “deep literacy“, combine to shape Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books into what they are.
UFOs, whether as a maddeningly elusive physical phenomenon or a richly-suggestive sociocultural one, call to be taken seriously, more seriously than a for-profit intellectual marketplace in our increasingly semiliterate time allows. Regarded as a cultural phenomenon, as my ideological critiques of Cowen and Wendt suggest and as Pasulka intuits, the UFO is revelatory in its own, weird way, of the gravest problems facing human civilization and the obscured disorientiation at their root, disorentiations and confusions whose names are legion, not to be dispersed without an investment in an ascetic, grave intellectual labour equal to the challenge and even that meagre flicker of insight to be won.
[By curious synchronicity, the day I was finally able to get these thoughts more or less down, Scientific American posted an interview with Leslie Kean, “Should Scientists Take UFOs and Ghosts More Seriously?”. For the interviewer (John Horgan), the only worthwhile concern was whether UFOs are extraterrestrial. “What is the best single piece of evidence that UFOs have an extraterrestrial origin?” he asks. Seriously?]
UFO believers and skeptics are both convinced that they know. Believers (extreme examples include devotees of the Sphere Being Alliance, the ECETI Ranch, and all those breathlessly waiting for Disclosure) know that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships piloted by a wide variety of alien races/species with equally various intentions for humankind; they, I would argue, are not skeptical enough. Skeptics, on the other hand, know that UFO sightings and encounters with their putatively extraterrestrial pilots are merely a mishmash of rumour, misperception, and pathology; they, it seems to me, are (for the most part) neither skeptical enough of their own sometimes strenuous explanations nor curious enough about the cultural, social, and psychological implications of the phenomenon in its multifarious guises even if their dismissals are all well-founded. The phenomenon, as is well-known, also exhibits features that elude both the believers’ beliefs and the skeptics’ debunkings. For my part, the UFO phenomenon remains, therefore, a mystery, whether one appends the adjective Fortean to it or not.
As I’ve ventured on a couple of occasions, the UFO is as much an aesthetic object as a possible object for the physical sciences. By “aesthetic object” I do not mean one that is merely or exclusively “beautiful” (though UFOs themselves and related experiences can possess this quality) but that, following Immanuel Kant’s line of thought, the UFO requires we create a concept for it rather than subsuming it under one ready-to-hand (if we could do that it would hardly be the persistent anomaly it has proven to be). It’s precisely this characteristic I want to touch on here, that the conceptual demands the UFO phenomenon places on our attempts to conceptualize it suggest it is at present a kind of epistemic singularity.
Just as a gravitational singularity (a black hole) suspends the normal laws of spacetime, the UFO warps our thinking about it. The irrationality displayed by both believers and skeptics is a case in point. But even those who have attempted to grapple with the mystery with method, reason, imagination, or speculation find their investigations quickly complicated if not frustrated by the equally wily and protean evasiveness of the phenomenon, aptly characterized with reference to the Trickster of various folklores. Paradoxically (go figger) this denial of understanding and comprehension is at the same time an open invitation to imagine and think in a non-linear, alogical way, “outside the box” of the rules of method, with an impish playfulness of mind equal to that displayed by the phenomenon itself. From this perspective, two, more “out-of-this-world” (how apt) speculations take on a certain appeal.
Since the dawn of the modern era, Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting, analogues between the UFO and more mythic or religious manifestations have been noted. Adamski’s circle identified the flying discs of the time, inspired by their Theosophically-tinged grasp of Hindu and Vendantic lore, as vimanas, the aerial chariots of the gods of ancient India. More recently, similarities between alien abductions and shamanic initiation and practice have been noted. Even more recently, psychonauts for whom dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has been the preferred vehicle for exploring what appear as alternate dimensions have reported encounters with beings markedly similar to entities associated with UFOs and alien abductions. In an attempt to probe this experience more thoroughly, Dr Andrew Gallimore is attempting to develop the means to allow psychonautical explorers to reside in these unusual realms longer than the relatively more transient states of DMT intoxication afforded by smoking it or even drinking ayahuasca, by means of medical technology. Such efforts put the mainstream Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the so-called Secret Space Program in a new light!
No less imaginative is the hypothesis of Trevor James Constable , that UFOs are in fact plasmatic life forms native to earth’s atmosphere. What makes Constable’s theory all the more provocative is how it is couched in Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory and as of 2003 given more mainstream as well as fringe scientific support. Mircea Sanduloviciu and his colleagues at Cuza University in Romania have created plasma phenomena that can grow, replicate, and communicate just like living cells, while Nik Hayes and Leon Southgate have managed to photograph Constable’s orgonotic bio-forms. Just as psychonautical exploration expands our notions of reality, so the investigations of Constable et al. widen our ideas of what might constitute life on (and off) earth.
Such wild research suggests another feature of the phenomenon closer to the heart of the mythopoeic work undertaken here in the Skunkworks: it inspires equally a rational, scientific and poetic response. That is, just as some ufologists tackle the enigma with forensic and natural scientific methods, its irrational dimension demands a playfulness of mind no less nimble and agile. To paraphrase the idea of Aimé Michel quoted above, the phenomenon puts into question both the laws of our physics and the structure of our societies. In line with Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ argument (in his four-volume Mythologiques) that mythological thinking is no less rigorous or practical than that of our natural sciences, the phenomenon inspires a response from the whole of the human being, as if as a kind of “compensatory mechanism” (Jung) it seeks to balance the deepening perversity of our present technocapitalistic moment and the ecological crises that it engenders. To heal is to make whole, and the spiritual stresses the black (rabbit) hole of the UFO phenomenon places on human understanding might play just that role.
Regular visitors here will know production has stalled at the Skunkworks. So, after arriving in those repurposed school busses with the blacked-out windows, the staff not working on settling in to the new installation have way too much time on their hands. One result has been their weaving conspiracy theories from their newsfeeds and attendant discussion threads.
The most recent concerns the appearance of COVID-19, the Corona Virus. Of course, they’ve been batting around the official and more paranoid theories, until one’s tinfoil hat lit up in a veritable explosion of sparks. A colleague had remarked he was afraid the virus might dampen participation in the upcoming presidential election in the U.S. come November, at which point the following theory was proposed:
COVID-19 neither arose naturally, arrived from space, or escaped from a Chinese bioweapons lab, but had been engineered by some agent aligned with Trump, let’s say, for the sake of argument, the American military under his administration’s direction. Said weaponized pathogen, engineered to appear imaginably naturally occurring, 1. conveniently disrupts Chinese society, slowing and if not temporarily crippling its economy, China being the single greatest threat to American economic and military hegemony at present, (and inflicts no little damage on Iran, as well) , and 2. arrives on American shores at just the right time to give the regime good reason to declare a state of emergency and institute martial law, delaying the election ad infinitum and inaugurating Trump’s presidency-for-life.
I’ve been told the conversation stopped momentarily, while everyone at the table looked at each other in frightened wonderment as the proposed theory sunk in…
Remember: you read it here, first.
Sometimes “the UFO community” reveals that some of its members are just shit-gibbons (which is an insult to gibbons): point of evidence is the recent hacking of Diane W. Pasulka’s social media accounts and email (if I have the story straight).
What is wrong with some people?
But, then, the less socially-challenged among us (admittedly, a relative judgement) are edified by something good that comes out it all. To wit, this review of M. J. Banias’ The UFO People by no less than folklorist Thomas E. Bullard in the no less auspicious Journal for Scientific Exploration. Bullard devotes just over eight pages of cogent appreciation to Banias’ work, one whose concerns are shared here at Skunkworks.
Here’s to less shit-gibbonry and more serious, civil work!
Regular visitors will doubtless have noticed Skunkworks has been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is due to October’s having been devoted to packing and moving the physical facility and the days since working on unpacking and getting the new digs functional. As the library (sorry, Nick) is presently just piles and piles of books, it hasn’t been possible to maintain the level of erudition I’m uncomfortable without.
Nevertheless, one chance volume on the top of one those piles provides the impetus for today’s reflection.
In a recent brief back and forth concerning how to take if not explain Deep Prasad’s recently famous experience, Rich Reynolds expressed discontent with understanding it as a variety of religious experience. He writes:
It seems to me that a Shamanic interpretation is the least interesting, not worthy of the discussion we’ve given it here.
It leads us away from a truly imaginative and possibly insightful determination that Deep’s experience invites.
I had remarked Prasad’s experience bore certain resemblances to a shamanic initiation (an insight whose grounds and implications await a functional library here in the Skunkworks…). Reynolds, however, finds my conjecture lacking interest, imagination, and insight, which is curious. Why should a variety of religious experience, archaic, perhaps contemporary, and doubtlessly global and transcultural, and, most importantly, which eludes explanation, be deemed uninteresting?
What’s thought-provoking is how an undoubtedly real anomaly (the nature and significance shamanic initiation and experience) fails to inspire, while far more tenuous possibilities (that Prasad had communicated with extra- or ultraterrestrials or interdimensional intelligences) or downright dismissive psychological explanations (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy or “a waking dream”) are ready grist for the mill.
The German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known as “Novalis” (pictured above)) writes in one famous fragment:
By endowing the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious aspect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic.
The Fortean or anomalist, it seems to me, is somewhat of a Romantic in this regard. The opposite of the debunker or skeptic who would reduce every anomaly to the commonplace, ordinary, or known, the anomalist is equally dissatisfied with phenomena that are in fact already mysterious, dissatisfied with something both provocative and amenable to investigation, needing an extra aura of “the unexplained” to fire the imagination and maintain interest. One need only think of those who quite understandably wonder about the engineering that went into constructing archaic monuments but dismiss explanations that are human, all-too-human, instead, finding it better to invoke “the gods”, extraterrestrial or otherwise.
Aristotle writes in the opening of the Metaphysics that “philosophy begins in wonder.” This wonder at the phenomena of the world incites investigation. It’s just such wonder that, in the best of circumstances, drives the sciences, and it is likewise such wonder that inspires the proto-Romantic poet William Blake to urge us
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
A kind of wonder, it seems, just not enough for whom the world and its mysteries need an added, however artificial and flimsy, glamour.
UFOs are a myth, says David J. Halperin—but myths are real. The power and fascination of the UFO has nothing to do with space travel or life on other planets. It’s about us, our longings and terrors, especially the greatest terror of all: the end of our existence. This is a book about UFOs that goes beyond believing in them or debunking them, to a fresh understanding of what they tell us about ourselves as individuals, as a culture, as a species….
With Oxford University Press putting out D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic earlier this year, could something be afoot in at least cultural ufology?
If you order Intimate Alien before the end of September 2019, you get 30% off, too!
I doubt whatever Tom DeLonge & Co. have up their sleeve is half as interesting…
The latest example of Rich Reynolds’ irrational tenacity sent me to Aubeck’s and Vallée’s Wonders in the Sky. For all its failings, catalogued at length by at least two tenacious critics and admitted by no less than Vallée himself, the book is not without its saving graces.
I was recently moved by being shown John Carey’s study of sky ship tales from medieval Ireland to use his scholarship to make an argument about the interpretive dangers of reading narratives from distant times and cultures. At the time, I went to Wonders in the Sky and was surprised I could find no mention of these sky ships. It turns out Aubeck and Vallée were one step ahead of me in this regard, however.
I was unable to find such stories among the 500 they present in their “Chronology of Wonders”, because they include them in the second section of illustratively questionable tales, “Myths, Legends, and Chariots of the Gods”. The authors base their own analysis (pp. 405-11) on Carey’s, noting both the scant references to the sky ships in the annals and the increasing embellishment of the basic story line over time.
Most impressively (to me) they resolve the mystery of how the most famous (and fabulous) version of the story, wherein the sky ship’s anchor is caught in the church’s door arch, is repeated during the Phantom Airship flap of 1896/7: according to Aubeck and Vallée, the Boston Post published an article “A Sea Above the Clouds: Extraordinary Superstition Once Prevalent in England” that recounted two British folktales, one a version of the more famous Irish one. Two weeks later, the story was updated to the present and relocated to Merkel, Texas as reported the Houston Daily Post 28 April 1897, two days after the incident was said to have occurred (p. 409).
A (very) little more digging turns up that the article Aubeck and Vallée refer to also appeared (seemingly for the first time) in the 7 March 1897 edition of Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune and the next day in the Nebraska State Journal. It remains nevertheless no less astounding, however, that so recherché a philological tidbit should make the rounds as a syndicated article of all things in America’s newspapers at the time!
To paraphrase Chaucer: The life so short, the bookshelf so long to read!
During my recent debate concerning the sixteenth century broadsheets from Nuremberg and Basel made famous by Carl Jung in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (plates VI and V, respectively), I reached out to an art historian I know for whatever light they could shed on the question. I reproduce our short e-correspondence, below.
I was surprised they were more persuaded that the broadsheets reported on and depicted actual observations than I was. You can read my first essay on the matter and view the broadsheets here, and my second take, here.
I’m in a discussion with another ufophile concerning two 16th broadsheets, first noted by Jung in his book on Flying Saucers.
The first is from Nuremberg 1561 (an account of the story accompanying the illustration can be read, however rough and ready, here.)
The second is from Basel 1566, here.
Illustrations attached [viewable at the link, above].
My interlocutor insists the illustrations are merely and only allegories for the religious tensions of the day. I contend that, however stylized they in fact are, they are 1. Artist’s illustrations of the accompanying texts, which 2. Refer to events on specific dates, not to the general struggles of the day.
I readily grant both broadsheet pages are religiously informed (e.g., the crosses in the Nuremberg picture), but I am skeptical about their being merely allegorical pictures.
What illumination can you bring to the pictorial conventions at work in these pictures: are they reducible in the way my interlocutor contends, or do they employ stylizations of the day to depict what they texts report?
ART HISTORY DEPARTMENT, THE INVISIBLE COLLEGE
Having looked at the illustrations and the accompanying texts, I am of the opinion that they are related to specific events. The texts sound quite precise and have a scientific tone, they don’t sound allegorical. They are news notices so the medium does have an impact on how the message would have been understood at the time. An allegorical text would refer to the Bible or the Old Testament. There are such images pertaining to the religious wars and they depict things like the Tower of Babel, the Ruins of Jericho or Sodom and Gomorrah. They show armies battling it out and good being triumphant or evil being punished. Many artists did biblical series using thinly veiled metaphors that their public would have understood as religious or political commentary of the events of the day. Your debate is complicated by the fact that there are two camps, the iconoclasts and the iconophiles.
Look at the works of Michelangelo, Titian, Dürer, Cranach. They all had to deal with the impact of these wars and the changes imposed on them by their Churches. The Catholics depended on the Church’s patronage to survive. The Church expected them to use the Bible as a point of departure for their work and their work was closely scrutinized during its production. If they strayed, they paid a heavy price. Catholic artists fared better than the Protestant artists who lost their patronage altogether. In addition, the Protestants had their works destroyed in the riots.
In the Coccius illustration, the onlookers seem surprised or in awe but not cowering in terror. The Nuremberg one actually has an explosion but I am not seeing the usual binary confrontation between two camps, which is typical–good confronting evil.
The artists of the time had to answer to their respective Churches. Coccius and Glaser both seem to have had much more leeway than other artists of their time. In Switzerland, where Coccius worked, there were Catholics and Protestants from one canton to the next. The illustration doesn’t seem to follow the edicts of the Catholic Church but it would not have pleased the other side either. Glaser was on the fence as well. From what I can tell, he lived in Catholic Bavaria but surrounded by Lutherans. I believe that Illustrations of specific non-religious events would not have been questioned in the same way as artworks with a religious theme.
Paolo Veronese had to go before the Inquisition because of heresy for irreverently painting “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities” in a painting that could have initially been about the Last Supper. I am including Veronese’s responses to the Inquisition excerpted from H.W. Janson’s History of Art on Paolo Veronese’s “The Feast in the House of Levi” (1573, oil on canvas) [the featured image for this post]. It contains the transcript of the interrogation of the Inquisition and is quite entertaining. This is what the art of the time looked like. He didn’t redo the painting as he was directed to by the Inquisition, he just changed the title. Ah those weaselly artists! To conclude, I believe the two illustrations you sent me are just that, illustrations of phenomena. If the Churches weren’t happy, the artists faced serious repercussions, like the Inquisition and/or the destruction of the works themselves, that is not nothing.
Merci for your specialized comments. One small wrinkle in the matter came to light after I wrote you. The Reformation and Counter Reformation inspired a tremendous interest in anomalies, wonders, miracles, and prodigies. The two broadsheets were printed to meet this demand. Glaser (responsible for the Nuremberg one) printed a number along these lines (some dozen are in the holdings of the Zurich State Library, where Jung found these two examples and reproduced them in his book on ufos in the ‘50s).
You can see my two takes on the matter (when you have time and inclination)[at the first two links, above]:
ART HISTORY DEPARTMENT, THE INVISIBLE COLLEGE
Yes, I am aware of the miracles and wonders illustrated at the time. These two cases however are specific events, which were chronicled in the news of the time. I am not saying that they are exact illustrations, nothing was that straightforward, but I believe they were likely meteorological events, possibly a combination of phenomena such as waterspouts, hail, firestorms and yes, a blood moon. There is the question of these artists place within the hierarchy, They had more freedom because they were not uppermost in the minds of the religious regulatory bodies of the time. These institutions were put in place to force artists (and others) into submission. As for fake news, yes this is possible but both of these illustrators tend to be quite literal in their approach and are very detailed when it comes to illustrating fortifications and ramparts or botanical curiosities. In my opinion, Jung had his own perspective on these from the onset. And, yes, certainly we project our own knowledge base, prejudices and lacunae onto these images.
We witness a stylistic shift in artists working for the Catholic Church during the second part of the 16th century, with the rise of Mannerism. During this time, the Church is actually fighting wars and has a fleet of ships. It is fighting the spread of Islam but also protecting its trade routes and economic concerns. in the last quarter of the century, Italian artists suffer major losses due to fires that were deliberately set by their enemies (both Bellinis, Carpaccio and several artists whose works are part of the collections held by the more progressive Doge). This is not a comfortable or safe time to live in. Add to that the decimation of a third of the population after an epidemic of the plague in 1576. Titian, who had managed to live to an advanced age, died that year. All that to say there were plenty of reasons to look for wonders in the sky.
I read the texts corresponding to the links, very interesting insights on the matter. Not a subject I know much about. It was fun.
Last week, I wrote about Celtic Studies scholar John Cary’s hard core study of the varied tales of sky ships in medieval Ireland and its consequences for taking stories of this kind as ancient versions of modern-day UFO sighting reports. Cary points out the motif that equates sea and sky, seabottom and land is prevalent, not only in world, but Irish, literature as well, from the ancient poems about the hero Bran to one by Seamus Heaney. I added that the comparison of clouds to sea foam is equally ancient, and that that familiar childhood revery helps make the point clear to anyone who remembers sharing it.
I noted, but didn’t publicize, at the time, I had spontaneously hit on the same pattern of imagery in my first trade edition Grand Gnostic Central in the collection’s titular poem. Nor had I read Heaney’s poem until many years after composing the one that follows or even taken up my present mytho-ufological concerns at the time. The prose poem records a very real perception of Montreal, imaginably possibly familiar to anyone who has wandered its streets on any one of its clear, semi-tropical, humid summer nights.
from “Grand Gnostic Central”
The metropolis is unexceptional except for its foundation sunk profoundly deep into the bedrock of the ocean floor. A hemisphere of breathable air is maintained by a permeable membrane admitting needed gases and releasing excess into the seawater. Lights, that on the surface are aircraft, here trace supertankers. A traffic of smaller craft swirls into constellations nightly. The potentially catastrophic difference between air and sea pressure is corrected by three beams of light rotating atop the city’s highest edifice.
[Photo by Ed Hawco (Blork)]
As I wrote concerning stories of ships in the skies in medieval Ireland, “Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter.” The reasons for such stories and the ways they were communicated are more complicated than would appear offhand.
It’s such complexities that underwrite the difference of opinion between me and Rich Reynolds concerning just what to make of two broadsheets from the sixteenth century, one from Nuremberg (1561), the other from Basel (1566). I maintain they are what they purport to be, stories and artists’ impressions of aerial prodigies witnessed on specific dates and times of the day, Reynolds, that they “are ‘editorial rabble-rousing’ by the newspapers and ‘cartoonists’ (the guys who provided the drawings) about the ongoing societal consternations of Luther’s Reformation and the Catholic Church’s Counter-reformation.” My case, with links to our disputations, can be found here.
Exactly what was witnessed in 1561 and 1566 is a question that persists from those years to our own. My own stance concurs with the writer and illustrator of the Nuremberg broadsheet, Hans Glazer: “God alone knows.” Reynolds seems to be of the opinion that, in fact, nothing was seen, but he nowhere provides a explicit interpretation of the broadsheets themselves that would make clear just how he understands them, aside from their being “editorial rabble-rousing.” So, in the interests of intellectual balance, I want to attempt to argue here that the question as to whether the broadsheets refer to actually witnessed phenomena at all is indeterminate.
I must still disagree with Reynolds’ understanding. Pegging the broadsheets as “editorial rabble rousing” and their accompanying illustrations as “cartoons” is just too vague and ahistorical to do justice to the concrete facts of the print media of the time. The documents in question are best understood as examples of a popular genre of the day, that concerning prodigies and wonders. As Jerome Clark helpfully informs us: “Rediscovery of the prodigy book of Osequens in 1508 set off a flood of similar works. The most comprehensive was the Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon of Conrad Lycosthenes, which appeared in 1557 at Basel” (48) [my emphasis]. But the appetite for such materials is not accidental.
Reynolds’ whole case is motivated by the historical context, the religious strife that raged through Europe with the Reformation (which begins in 1517) and Counter-Reformation (beginning with the Council of Trent, 1545-1563) culminating in the nightmarish carnage of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). And, indeed, Glaser himself interprets what his text recounts and picture illustrates in religious terms, as “signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance”. The heightened religious fervour of the time, like at the turn of the millennium five centuries earlier, inspired an acutely heightened interest in supernatural signs and wonders. As Clark tells us, “Leading religious figures such as Martin Luther reaffirmed that signs must precede the end of the world, and Puritan belief fostered awareness of the supernatural by emphasis on a daily struggle between God and Satan in the worldly arena” (48). The historical context is analogous to that no less anxious one following the Second World War that, as Jung would have it, duly witnessed its own signs and wonders “seen in the sky”, flying saucers.
On the one hand, therefore, broadsheets, such as those from Nuremberg and Basel (both Protestant cities) could imaginably serve a propagandistic function. Disseminating accounts of “signs on the heaven” and “strange shapes in the sky” would affirm the populace’s belief in the momentousness of the times and the truth of their beliefs, as Glaser’s own gloss suggests. These reports, moreover, need not be true, but only seem to be true, bolstered by reference to specific times and places and witnesses and accompanied by artists’ impressions. The broadsheets, then, might be thought of as their days’ “fake news”.
On the other hand, however, the broadsheets do refer to specific locations, dates and times of day, which makes them easy enough for the skeptical to verify. Glaser’s broadsheet was printed a month after the events it claims to report; I have been unable to ascertain how long after the events of 27-28 July and 7 August the Basel pamphlet was printed. This is to say that the broadsheets could just as well be sincere reports of anomalous atmospheric phenomena, or not-so-anomalous phenomena (e.g., parhelia, a “blood moon”, etc.) interpreted through the eyes of the spirit of the day. In the final analysis, the question of “the truth” of these broadsheets turns on the question of just what status we grant the genre of print media of which they are an example.
So, either religious enthusiasm inspires visions of signs in the sky (how, exactly, is an interesting question…), which are duly reported by the broadsheets, which confirms and feeds this ferment, or the spiritual excitement sets up an expectation and desire for such wonders, which the broadsheets meet and maintain. In either case, the significance of these documents can be more or less ascertained only through a scrupulous attention to their own features and whatever can be discovered about their own communicative conventions in the context of their society and its concerns. Whether they are factual or fake, “God alone knows.” Nevertheless, and this is the most important point, however “obvious” their meaning might otherwise appear is a symptom of the invisibility of our own prejudices and ignorance.
Hot on the heels of my post on the air ships of medieval Ireland, Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures offered some, well, conjectures of his own concerning two sixteenth century broadsheets introduced to ufological consciousness by Carl Jung in his famous book on Flying Saucers.
The first is from Nuremberg in 1561 by Hans Glaser:
The second is from Basel, 1566, by Samuel Coccius.
Reynolds and I agree on dismissing out of hand the all-too-common Ancient Astronaut / Alien theoretical interpretation that sees these as premodern UFO sighting reports. Reynolds, however, goes a step farther, somewhat along the lines I pursue with regard to the medieval Irish airship tales, positing that these broadsheets’ illustrations are, in his words, “editorial cartoons” concerning the religious strife that was dividing post-Reformation Europe at the time. Interested readers can follow our dispute on this matter at the link to UFO Conjectures, above.
I maintain, maybe surprisingly, that the broadsheets are reports of real, if mysterious, occurrences. I base that claim on two main features of the broadsheets. First, both illustrations relate to the text they accompany, stories of anomalous aerial phenomena. These stories are, furthermore, specific as to date and time of day, which they wouldn’t be were they satirical allegories of current affairs. (They would, moreover, likelier be in verse, as was the convention of the time).
Reynolds takes exception, especially with regard to the Nuremberg broadsheet (the first of those reproduced, above), pointing to the smoke billowing in the lower right hand corner (which he sees as “the wrath of God, afflicting either Luther’s heresy or the Church’s vivid rebuttal”) and the prominent black spearhead that points to the left over the city (“A spear? Or some kind of Germanic weather icon…?”).
Reynolds is mistaken on two counts, I argue. First, the text that accompanies the picture that illustrates it refers to “globes, which were first in the sun” and that
flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour. And when the conflict in and again out of the sun was most intense, they became fatigued to such an extent that they all, as said above, fell from the sun down upon the earth ‘as if they all burned’ and they then wasted away on the earth with immense smoke. [my emphasis]
The text continues: “After all this there was something like a black spear, very long and thick, sighted; the shaft pointed to the east, the point pointed west” [my emphasis]. So, it isn’t difficult to relate what the text refers to and what the illustration depicts. More seriously, Reynolds resists the highly stylized artistic conventions of the illustration, ignoring, for example, a striking evidence for this in the sun’s having a face, let alone how the picture neglects perspective.
So, the context of the illustration (the details of its accompanying text) and the artistic conventions of the day both contradict Reynolds’ attempt to write off the picture (he never gets around to the text) as allegorical treatments of the times and support the contention that they are illustrated reports of actual events.
But Reynolds is right when the historical context of religious strife moves him to see things the way does. Hans Glaser himself offers the following gloss:
Although we have seen, shortly one after another, many kinds of signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance, we still are, unfortunately, so ungrateful that we despise such high signs and miracles of God. Or we speak of them with ridicule and discard them to the wind, in order that God may send us a frightening punishment on account of our ungratefulness. After all, the God-fearing will by no means discard these signs, but will take it to heart as a warning of their merciful Father in heaven, will mend their lives and faithfully beg God, that He may avert His wrath, including the well-deserved punishment, on us, so that we may temporarily here and perpetually there, live as his children. For it, may God grant us his help, Amen.
Clearly, Glaser understands whatever in fact is described in the text as signs from heaven, and he does so precisely because of the concrete historical situation that determines his writing and illustrating the broadsheet.
Not only does Reynolds abstract the illustration from the immediate context of its accompanying text, however, but he (mis)understands the illustration, viewing it through conventions of visual representation foreign to Glaser’s time and place. He’s right to find inspiration for his interpretation in the historical situation, but neglects another dimension of that context.
Jerome Clark in The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial (1998) in the entry for “Anomalous Aerial Phenomena Before 1800” (44-58) remarks the tremendous appetite for books of prodigies and wonders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the following telling tidbit: “Rediscovery of the prodigy book of Osequens in 1508 set off a flood of similar works. The most comprehensive was the Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon of Conrad Lycosthenes, which appeared in 1557 at Basel” (48) [my emphasis]. The broadsheets then are most likely best taken to be examples of this genre, catering to the public appetite for news of wonders.
What’s important here is not Reynolds’ and my dispute, but the kind of thinking at work in understanding historically distant documents. Ironically, though we both eschew the Ancient Alien misunderstanding of these broadsheets, Reynolds’ own take is led astray by the same kinds of errors: abstracting the illustration from its immediate context and viewing it apart from the artistic conventions and discoverable material cultural interests of the time.
What then is reported and depicted by these broadsheets? Glaser, perhaps, gives the best answer: “God alone knows.”
Addendum: Reynold’s replies in his own inimitable way here.
Visitors to tha Skunkworks will know how little patience I have for those (whose name is legion) who insist on taking premodern tales or artwork to be the equivalent of modern-day UFO sighting reports. I’ve taken Vallée to task for conflating alien abduction reports with fairy tales and Velikovsky, Jaynes, and Ancient Astronaut theorists (not to mention even scholar D. W. Pasulka, who should know better) for their no less ahistorical errors. My point has always been that the way we communicate today differs from the ways of other times and places (linguists would refer to differing “codes”), and, so, it’s just ignorant to read texts or interpret art universally according to how we write and represent things here and now. Friend and Irish Studies scholar Antoine Malette has provided me with an excellent case in point.
Celtic Studies scholar John Cary (presently at University College Cork) presented a paper in 1992 titled “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel” (interested readers without access to JSTOR can sign up for a free membership to read it, here). In his study, Cary scrutinizes variations of a story familiar to readers of Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia (144). In Cary’s version:
There happened something once in the borough called Cloena [=Cionmacnoise], which will also seem marvellous. In this town there is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Kiranus [=Ciarán]. One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, it befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship; for a rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got stuck in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marveled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When he came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In the church where the anchor was caught, there is a bishop’s throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon, as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church since then as a testimony to this event.
Curiously, Vallée (and Donald B. Hanlon from whom he cites the story (and Harold T. Wilkins, Hanlon’s ultimate source)) remarks the tale’s variations from eighth century Ireland to Merkel, Texas in April, 1897 and (along with Hanlon) the provocative if no less problematic analogues between the medieval and modern versions but neglects to unfold the implications of this variation, unlike the scholar Cary.
All in all, Cary examines no fewer than six versions of the story, including the newspaper report from 1897. He summarizes their development as follows:
(a) In the mid-eighth century, a notice that ships had been seen in the air was included in the annals. The apparition was subsequently localized at the assembly of Tailtiu, and said to have been witnessed by the then reigning king of Tara.
(b) By the late eleventh century the story had been transferred to the reign of the tenth-century king Congalach Cnogba, and embellished with the detail of the lost and recovered fishing-spear [thrown from the ship]; there was now only one air ship,
(c) By the end of the twelfth century the story was shifted to the monastic milieu of Clonmacnoise, and an anchor took the place of the fishing-spear.
So, the version Vallée and Hanlon compare to the 1897 newspaper story is already so embellished it can’t be seriously considered anything other than a fanciful (i.e. fictional) tale of the marvelous (a medieval genre with its own features and purposes). But I’m not interested in the tiresome exercise of merely debunking Vallée et al. The philology of this tale’s development is more complex and interesting in its implications.
Having surveyed the tale’s variations, Cary conjectures about how it might have arrived at its final, thirteenth century version. The sky ship’s anchor getting caught echoes a motif from around the world and from at least two extant Irish texts, the saga Tochmarc Emere and an extended gloss on the hymn “Ni car Brigit buadach bith“. The tale reaches its fullest elaboration with the Clonmacnoise version likely because, as Carey writes, “Clonmacnoise in the later Middle Irish period seems to have been greedy for marvels: quite a number of little tales, drawn in all likelihood from many disparate sources, associate the monastery with fantastic occurrences of all kinds.” Therefore, Cary concludes, “it seems likeliest that it was in the heady atmosphere of Clonmacnoise mirabilia-collecting” that previous versions and other material “were fused into a single tale.”
The very scheme of the story (aerial ships) and other marvelous elements woven into it by the monks of Clonmacnoise are part of a larger tapestry in Irish and world literature. Cary cites the example of “the famous encounter between the mortal Bran in his ship and the divine Manannán in his chariot, and the [ancient, pagan] poem in which the god declares that what is sea to one is land to the other”. Cary proposes that
such flourishes of paradox and surreality subordinate our habitual frame of reference to an alien [!] and unreckonable scheme which lies beyond it. The stories, in [Proinsias] Mac Cana’s words, explore “the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, between this and the other world, together with the ambiguities and relativities of time and space which were implicit in their interaction.”
Cary’s and Mac Cana’s point here is all the more persuasive when one reflects that the clouds’ being compared to the foam of the sea is ancient, and the revery that inspires it is likely one many of us will remember from our childhood.
However much the story of sky ships is caught up inextricably in daydream, poetic inspiration, and embellished retellings, the matter is still more complex. As all authors here—Cary, Vallée, and Hanlon—admit, the problem of how the modern, newspaper story follows so closely upon the thirteenth century version cited above is “a recalcitrant one.” Moreover, Cary, being the sincere scholar he is, admits up front that
the date, the range of attestation, and the fact that the item [the appearance of aerial vessels] was first recorded in Latin all suggest that we have here to do with a contemporary notice of an anomalous occurrence [my emphasis]. We will of course never know what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s, or how many retellings and mutations separated the first testimony from its distillation in the annals.
In the case of the newspaper story from the Houston Daily Post, the story either records a real event, copies the tale from the thirteenth century Norse text Konungs Skuggsj, or uncannily draws from the same sources of inspiration that coalesced in that version; each of these possibilities equally strain credulity. More to the point, we’re still left with the mystery Cary notes, “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s.”
Those inclined to believe the Psychosocial Hypothesis will maintain that even those earliest, lost passages from the annals record nothing more than rumours, themselves merely stories like that of Bran and the god Mannanán, inspired by the same imaginative schema as the Irish poem. But this response, ironically, commits the same error as taking all stories to be equivalent to witness reports, conflating the genre of the annal or chronicle with that of mirabilia, forgetting that Herodotus called his writings “histories” motivated by the meaning of the ancient Greek verb at the root of our word ‘history’, meaning to inquire, explore, or, as the poet Charles Olson so forcefully put it, to see for oneself. This is to say, no less ironically (or dialectically) that Herodotus’ histories and medieval annals and chronicles are closer in spirit and linguistic code to modern day witness or newspaper reports than the marvelous tales worked up the monks of Clonmacnoise. And a sufficiently persuasive account for how the 1897 version of the story came to be written is still wanting.
Thus, a further irony leads us to a notion central to Ancient Astronaut theorizing, that the body of literature under scrutiny here, like all those myths such theorists point to, is the pearl formed by the oyster of the Unconscious or Creative Imagination around the hard grain of truth of “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead”. But this proposal doesn’t get us very far either, for just what the medieval annals record, in this case, at least, is lost, and, ironically (…), the modern-day version is, in Hanlon’s words, all the more “strange and, in fact, downright suspicious” precisely because of its mirroring the thirteenth century, demonstrably fabulous version.
What should remain beyond a reasonable doubt is the need for and value of the application of intelligent, sensitive specialized erudition in such matters, an application neglected by all the ufological authors in question. Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter. Indeed, similar scrutiny can be applied even to the hermeneutics, productive and receptive, of modern-day witness reports, as if their being contemporary makes them any more immediately comprehensible. By a further turn of the screw of irony, such considered and well-informed analyses and explanations render the topic all the more mysterious, leaving as well the hard kernel of the mystery of just what was seen along with the strangeness of its apparent transhistorical consistency as further grist for the mill of reflection, investigation, and speculation.
Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.
As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.
In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.
More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).
The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies: on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists: like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.
At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?
This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).
What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.
The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.
A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.
Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.
The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.
The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that
…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”
The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….
I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.
Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.
Recently, a commenter at UFO Conjectures felt the need to share with me a link concerning mystery aircraft, from 1865-1946. I was a little taken aback, as I’ve been well-apprised of this history since beginning my work on Orthoteny in the early 1990s.
The 1994 chapbook On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery cuts about the same swath, focusing on the Phantom Airships of 1896/7, then jumping ahead to the years just before the Great War, ending with the first bombing of London by Zeppelins and the story of Hill 60, before punctuating the section with the first modern sighting, Kenneth Arnold’s, in 1947.
I therefore share today the final three poems from the Phantom Airship sequence proper.
The luminous object witnessed early last evening
The War Office has declared a spy-craft
Tonight a piercing light
lit up every corner
swept up to the hills
Bright lights flew over at thirty miles an hour
huffing like a faint train
the squeal of gears a clank of flaps
Rising last evening
all of magnitudes greater
crossed the Channel
sixty miles further
every hour after
they cruised west in threes
streets crowded to see
one’s lamp played down
gone in a flash
From the east
to hover an hour
in their own
The tram stops
A distant drone
The audience rises
“God Save the King”
Crashed through the ceiling
Went off in the hall
They were in bed and old
Knelt by the bed
And held each other
Another fell between the roofs
Onto the narrow lane just in front of them
But bounced off before it burst
The side of one house
And the Salvation Army Barracks windows
A boarding house burned down
The Butcher’s shutters rattled
Neighbours in sheets on the street
Three of them lit up against the sky
Incendiaries fireballs falling
Searchlights and the city burning making a twilight
Dawn broke clear over Sulva Bay
Only six oval silvery clouds loafed
Undisturbed by the breeze
At sixty degrees
To us twenty-four
Six hundred feet away
Over the Hill a gunmetal cloud
Three hundred feet high and wide nine hundred long
Not nineteen chains from the trenches
Ordered to reinforce the Hill
Were lost to sight as they marched
Into the cloud
For almost an hour
It rose then
Off with the others
Or record of them
Last week, I shared one section from a long poem, “Magonian Latitudes” (from my second trade edition, Ladonian Magnitudes), that rimes with another section from my treatment of the Phantom Airship Mystery of 1896/7.
Here, I share the entirety of the poetic sequence, an attempt to wind together the notion of the myth-as-myth and allusions to ancient (and medieval) aliens. It has six sections, the beginning of each indicated by the bolded, upper-case first letter of the section’s first line.
Poetically, this sketch for a part of Orthoteny (my work-in-progress dealing with the myth of things seen in the sky in its totality as explored here at Skunkworks) draws on a catholic sampling of the poetics of international, Twentieth-century poetry. It ain’t no doggerel!
…there is a certain region, which they call Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds…
A change of dimension
not just locale
Like lungs for gills
or water to air
Horses, bison, mammoth, ibex,
numberless others unheard of
Rendered on cave-walls
Yet on the ceiling alone
in threes and fours
Flying Saucers hover
over their occupants
The Cabalist Zedechias
in Pepin’s reign
Sought to convince the world
Neither angelic nor human in kind
inhabit the Elements
Required the Sylphs show themselves
in the Air for everyone
Which they did sumptuously
in the Air in human form
In battle array marching in good order
halting under arms or magnificent tents
Or the full sails of ships
When winds rose and blew
black clouds overhead
The peasants ran to the fields
to lift tall poles
To stay the ships
from carrying off
What rain or hail
culled from the crops
Called up by a tempestaire
for a tithe
Which practice persisted despite
the Capitularies of Charlemagne
The Sylphs saw alarm
from peasant to crown
Determined to dissipate their terror
by carrying off men
To show them their women
Then set them down
again on earth
Those who saw these as they descended
came from every direction
Carried away by the frenzy
hurried off to torture
Over all the lands countless tested
by fire or water
A marvel in Cloera County
interrupted Sunday Mass
It befell an anchor on a rope
caught in Saint Kinarus’ door-arch
Where the line ended in clouds
the congregation saw some kind of ship
One crewman dove and swam down
as if to free the flukes from the keystone
But they seized and would hold him
but that the Bishop
On grounds terrestrial air
may well drown one celestial
Quick as limbs can swim he rose
to hands on ropes and ladders
The anchor rang and cut
the line coiled down about them
The cave is a long way in from the mouth open to the sky
Generations there stare straight ahead on haunches
Higher up behind a fire burns
A wall before those hurrying past between
Both ways up and down the track there
Their burdens their shadows
One over her share
the water over the earth
The other in the firmament
the water over the earth
The air a mirror
Whose face is an ocean
There they stare dreaming
A quiet blue eye flickers
With all due respect (and in good humour) to Curt Collins, there’s poetry and there’s doggerel; some of the latter is surely better forgotten!
Interested readers can see what I mean over at Collins’ The Saucers That Time Forgot.
I tend to being caustically critical of folks who don’t do their homework, and, as is only just, I have fallen prey to a failing I loathe.
Thanks to no little impetus from M. J. Banias, I essayed some thoughts on UFOs and hyperreality, developing a fourfold distinction between the real, the Real, the hyperreal, and the hyporeal. I noticed after publishing these reflections, one reader of Skunkworks had followed a hyperlink in a previous posting of mine to an article on Mysterious Universe by Robbie Graham, “UFOs: Fact, Fantasy, and Hyperreality”, a version of the conclusion to his 2015 book Silver Screen Saucers. I therefore address here Graham’s treatment of this topic, in the spirit of intellectual honesty and rigor, and to give credit where credit is due.
First, I attempt to reconstruct his views on UFOs, mass media (particularly cinema or the televisual), and the hyperreal as coherently and persuasively as I can….
Graham derives a version of the hyperreal via a genealogy that begins with Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which then descends by way of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle to arrive at Jean Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacrum, the locus classicus of the concept of the hyperreal (though, strictly, Baudrillard first essays the idea in his earlier book, Symbolic Exchange and Death). Graham’s own understanding is expressed very hastily; he synthesizes Benjamin, Debord, and the Wikipedia entry on ‘Hyperreality’ (hardly the most trustworthy authority), in a single sentence:
Technologies of reproduction (mechanical and digital) have ushered in the age of the hyperreal, an age where simulations of reality threaten to dissolve the boundaries between “fact” and “fantasy,” between “true” and “false,” “real” and “imaginary.”
This “age of the hyperreal” emerges from the conditions of the society of the spectacle, which Graham characterizes as one wherein
…“the real world changes into simple images… and the simple images become real.” In our spectacular society [sic], said Debord, “the image matters more than the object, in fact, much more so than mere objective truth.” The image replaces the truth – it is truth, it is reality.
Such hyperbolically paradoxical claims—that reality becomes image; images, real; that they replace truth and reality; that the distinctions between fact and fantasy, true and false, and real and imaginary threaten to collapse—call for some explanation, let alone support, which I imagine Graham sees himself as providing in the remainder of his text, which sets out his main contention that
cinematic simulations of UFOlogical history have all but consumed the history itself through the process of replication, just as humans were consumed and replicated as pod people in genre classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
This “process of replication” and replacement depends upon the power of cinema and how the medium takes up and presents “real” ufological material. For Graham, UFOs “are ‘real,’ … they exist independently of cinema, and of pop-culture”; UFO phenomena precede their pop cultural representation, and, even in the absence of this representation “people would continue to report UFOs.” Cinematic fictions are therefore based on ufological facts (“art imitates life”); however, because of the artistic license taken with these facts and the power, aesthetic and social, of the medium, the public perception of the “real” phenomenon is distorted if not replaced by its fictional versions.
Graham’s insight turns on the power he grants the cinematic medium:
Movies masquerade as the final word on a given topic. No matter what the subject, and regardless of how much that subject has already been written about and debated, once it is committed to film—once it has received the full Hollywood treatment—it is embedded firmly and forever into the popular consciousness. Imprinted on our psyche. Plunged into the deep wells of memory and imagination.
This power is troubling, since cinema “imprints” on its audience not the truth of reality but “at best, reflections of …reality, snapshots of it, simulations of it, skewed and distorted through the ideological framework of those who have made them.”
Based on these premises, Graham analyzes the general process of hyperrealization into three phases. First, authentic, true, real ufological material is simulated in some popular medium (film, television, or “video games, comic books, etc.”). Second, the audience receives this simulation and is consequently subject to the workings of popular media by which the source material, “ufological reality” “is masked and perverted”. Finally, “reality and simulation are experienced as without difference, or rather, the image has come to mean more … than any underlying reality.”
He summarizes the process thusly:
Essentially, then, the hyperreality of the UFO phenomenon has arisen primarily through processes of mass media simulation. The blurring of true and false, real and imaginary, through that most magical of mediums (cinema), and within the context of that most fantastical of genres (science fiction), engenders our acceptance of the UFO as just that: a fictional media construct with little or no grounding in our lived historical reality. And yet, thanks to their permanent residency in the popular imagination, UFOs are no less real to us as a result.
To paraphrase: I take Graham to mean that the mass media exploitation of ufological material—its re-presentation, reproduction, and proliferation—overwhelms the preexisting, real-world sightings and encounters, drowning out and replacing that UFO reality in the public imagination. Because the ufological thereby becomes in the first instance a matter of fantasy and more-or-less light entertainment, whatever gravity the real-world phenomenon might possess is coloured by its media representation in advance, prejudicing its reception. In this way, the representation takes precedence over the represented.
I find Graham’s basic point, as paraphrased above, persuasive; however, there are some nits to pick and more major implications to unfold. A slight parody of Marshall McLuhan’s famous pairing will organize our critique according the media and their messages.<