The topic of a recent private (and very brief) correspondence concerned (Immanuel) Velikovsky and (Julian) Jaynes. The former is famous for his Worlds in Collision (1950), the latter for Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). Velikovsky’s is a work of speculative cosmology, while Jaynes’ one of speculative psychology, i.e., the claims of both concern, respectively, cosmological and psychological developments in the relatively distant past. And what’s of importance here is that both take their initial impulse from ancient texts. For example, Velikovsky refers to the Long Day of Joshua (Joshua 10: 12-15) and Jaynes to the poet’s invocations of the Muse at the beginning of the Iliad.
Velikovsky’s and Jaynes’ appeal to premodern texts are arguably analogous in some ways to the same appeal made since the dawn of the modern UFO era (post-1947) in support of the claim that UFOs have been, in fact, a constant in human history. For example, Desmond Leslie in the book he wrote with George Adamski Flying Saucers Have Landed published the same year as Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision eschews the freshly-minted expression ‘flying saucer’, preferring “to use the ancient names for the sky disks such as ‘car celestial’, ‘vimanas’, and ‘fiery chariots'” (14). Ancient Astronaut “theorists” refer also to ancient art, seeing there depictions of flying saucers and extraterrestrials.
All such argumentative moves make the same questionable assumption, that premodern texts and art are universally representational. This assumption is not utterly unfounded: Heinrich Schliemann’s taking Homer at his word resulted in his making important archeological discoveries (though it remains debatable that he in fact discovered the Troy of the Iliad), and it was precisely the strikingly realistic manner of the then newly-discovered cave paintings of Altamira that gave an impulse to the visual arts at the beginning of last century, most famously perhaps in the work of Picasso. On the other hand, I’m unaware of any paleontologists inspired by the Odyssey to search for the remains of the Cyclops nor does anyone, to my knowledge, believe The Sorcerer of Les Trois-Frères to be a realistically-depicted humanoid. Indeed, this interpretive move parallels “literal” readings of the Bible that support the belief in the reality of a global inundation in the distant, mythological past. All these hermeneutics (interpretive approaches) err in the roughly the same way: they project a historically, culturally, and socially local communicative convention onto human textual and artistic production in general.
As the examples of the Cyclops and The Sorcerer of Les Trois-Frères should make clear, premodern texts and art cannot legitimately in general be understood as merely distorted or embellished representations of historical events. Such a representational use of media is historically and culturally local. Moreover, the very notion that language can be said to represent a ready-made world (as in the picture theory of meaning in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) or that it should, as admonished by Francis Bacon in his inaugurating the Scientific Revolution, is itself a notion that has undergone a devastating critique from the perspectives both of philosophy (e.g., Novalis’ “Monologue”) and linguistics (e.g., the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis). Any attempt to enlist any not explicitly representational text as evidence must always undergo the philological labour of establishing the linguistic conventions that underwrite the meaning of that particular text in order to claim to have understood it all in the first place. And since this hermeneutic task is a historical one, undertaken by interpreters of a particular time to understand a text produced in a distant place and time, it is open-ended, always unfinished, perennially open to revision. These are the lessons of what philosophers term “the hermeneutic circle” and “the linguistic turn”, whether one takes this latter to have begun after the Great War or the French Revolution.
The error of taking all linguistic and artistic media in the same way, projecting our own practice onto the entirety of humanity in all times and places, finds its analogue in the prejudices evident in the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), as I have been at pains to make clear in several posts, most recently in regards to the example of Donald Keyhoe. The difference between the crimes-against-interpretation sketched above and the errors of the ETH is one of scale: the linguistico-artistic error restricts itself to human cultural production, while the ETH projects an anthropocentric and culturally, historically, and socially restricted notion of intelligence onto all life in the universe.
If it’s not too bizarre a claim to make in the context of a cultural field as marginal and questionable, in ufology Donald Keyhoe is a monumental figure. No history of the UFO can overlook his contributions as a researcher and activist, as director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) and one of the first and most forceful figures to press for Congressional hearings into the question of the UFO, arguably inaugurating similar, continuing efforts on the part of today’s Disclosure movement. What’s telling, either about the UFO as such or Keyhoe’s insight into the phenomenon, is the the way his original conclusions set forth in his article for True Magazine “The Flying Saucers are Real” and his book of the same title, both published in 1950, continue to set the ufological agenda.
In line with the USAF’s own reasoning, Keyhoe posited what is now known as the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), that UFOs are spaceships of interplanetary origin. Keyhoe and the Air Force arrived at this conclusion by a process of elimination. Some of the reported sightings could not be explained away as misidentifications or hoaxes; neither the American military nor any of its allies or enemies possessed the aeronautical technology to produce aeroforms with the flight characteristics of the disks, nor did it make sense that if the disks were experimental aircraft that they would be tested in ways that might allow this new weapon to be observed or even captured or that threatened civilian life and limb and that actually resulted in the death of one airman, Thomas Mantell; therefore, since no conventional, earthly explanation existed to explain these uncanny flying machines, they were most likely of extraterrestrial origin. This argument in support of the ETH is repeated to this day.
The ETH found further support and elaboration in matching the patterns of reported sightings to speculations about how humankind might explore inhabited planets in the future with the result that the way the story of the flying disks had developed to this point mirrored the way human beings would proceed with their own explorations. This projection of an imagined human future behaviour also extended to the disks’ extraterrestrial origin: the pilots’ technology must be in advance of our own, given what their ships can do and how far they must have traveled to have reached earth from some distant planet if not, as was thought more likely, star. That is, their intelligence is an anthropomorphic one, that, like our own, proceeded along a path of tool-using, technological development. At work here is a fateful generalization and failure of imagination that posits human intelligence as singular and archetypal and the radically contingent history of industrial civilization as typical of intelligent beings. Such a projection of the “human form divine” finds its culmination in Keyhoe’s finding himself unable to picture the extraterrestrials as anything other than anthropomorphic, because of
the stubborn feeling that they would resemble man. That came, of course, from an inborn feeling of man’s superiority over all living things. It carried over into the feeling that any thinking, intelligent being, whether on Mars or Wolf 359’s planets, should have evolved in the same form. (The Flying Saucers are Real, 136)
These anthropocentric and technocentric prejudices remain as operative in much of the UFO imaginary as they go unremarked.
An equally persistent set of concerns orbits the potentially disruptive consequences of the revelation of the reality of extraterrestrial, technologically advanced civilizations having appeared in our skies. Keyhoe mulling this matter over with his editor as they prepare to publish his article for True Magazine reflects that “public acceptance of intelligent life on other planets would affect almost every phase of our existence—business, defense planning, philosophy, even religions” (139), a supposition that inspires the 300+ pages of Richard M. Dolan’s and Bryce Zabel’s 2012 book A.D. After Disclosure: When the Government Finally Reveals the Truth About Alien Contact.
More acutely, in the wake of the purported reaction to Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, many feared the most immediate reaction to the news would be widespread panic. These considerations guide the development of official reaction to the phenomenon. As Keyhoe saw it, the USAF first set out to “investigate and at the same time conceal from the public the truth about the saucers” (173). Then “it was decided to let the facts gradually leak out, in order to prepare the American people.” However, “the unexpected public reaction [to the True Magazine article] was mistaken by the Air Force for hysteria, resulting in their hasty denial that the saucers existed.” The problem of just what to reveal and conceal concerning the saucers was also complicated by Cold War national security issues. As Keyhoe saw it
The education problem is complicated by two imperative needs. We must try to learn as much as we can about the space ships’ source of power, and at the same time try to prevent clues to this information from reaching an enemy on earth. (174)
Here are nascent themes in ufological speculation that persist and have been developed to the present day. First is the belief that militaries and governments around the world have or continue to investigate UFOs. Secondly, their efforts have borne fruit in determining the (usually extraterrestrial) truth of the phenomenon. Thirdly, because of the explosive nature of these discoveries, those who hold these secrets dissimulate concerning the phenomenon to dissuade serious, public interest and to maintain either the potential or real technological advantage these secrets bestow, or, alternatively, they are engaged in a process of public education through a combination of leaks, disinformation, and popular culture (such as movie and television) to prepare society for the ultimate revelation of the reality of the extraterrestrial presence.
Hand in hand with this motif is that of the insider able to access this otherwise secret or tactfully unpublicized information, a figure that has morphed, today, into the whistleblower. Keyhoe, as an ex-Marine pilot, maintained many contacts within the military and government. Most of the narrative of his books is conversations he has with these inside sources. The final chapters of The Flying Saucers are Real find Keyhoe studying over two hundred secret Air Force files released to him and his petitioning a general of his acquaintance for the more than one hundred he had been denied! This figure with access to inside information undergoes a change as the official relation to the phenomenon (at least in its public guise) develops from secrecy, to debunkery, to indifference. The truth is no longer obtained via official documents from official channels, but via leaked or hacked documents or whistleblower, witness testimony.
Two other dimensions of the UFO myth appear in Keyhoe’s first book. At one point, an informant tells him that he has learned that the flying disks are British secret weapons developed from German plans and prototypes captured at the end of the Second World War (122). Here, the myth of the Nazi flying saucer, arguably first popularized by Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel as a money-making scheme but since elaborated perhaps most fully by Joseph Farrell, makes very likely its first appearance in print. Moreover, although, tellingly, the Roswell incident is not mentioned in The Flying Saucers are Real, another of Keyhoe’s informants relates to him a story about “little men from Venus”:
In the usual version, two flying saucers had come down near our southwestern border. In the space craft were several oddly dressed men, three feet high. All of them were dead; the cause was usually given as inability to stand our atmosphere. The Air Force was said to have hushed up the story… (139)
The source of this particular story is given as George Koehler (165), who later admits to its being “a gag”. But the rumour also brings to mind a more famous fabrication by Frank Scully, whose Behind the Flying Saucers is published the same year as Keyhoe’s first book. Regardless of who first invents this scenario, we find here the vector for what will be called Crash/Retrieval Syndrome, a string of increasingly elaborate stories concerning crashed and retrieved flying saucers and the capture of their pilots, dead or alive, that will bloom with the rediscovery of the Roswell Crash and subsequently flower into a wildly variegated myth of reverse-engineered alien technology, secret treaties between various ET races and earth governments, breakaway civilizations, exopolitics and disclosure, a term that perhaps appears for the first time in the UFO literature in Keyhoe’s important first volume.
David Clarke in his How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth refers to the “UFO Syndrome”, “the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be” (12), what I have called “ufophilia” (and am tempted to term, sometimes, “ufomania”). Even before George Adamski published his story of meeting a man from Venus, a latter-day Lord of the Flame, in 1953, and even before Project Sign’s famous Estimate of the Situation, desperate to explain the recalcitrant mystery of high-performing aeroforms intruding on American airspace, the public imagination had already ventured that Flying Saucers might be spaceships from another planet populated by Extraterrestrial Intelligences (ETIs), an explanation for UFO and close encounter reports that later came to be called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Though the notion of ETI was already in the air, the most notorious example being Orson Welles’ 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, the idea as such runs much deeper, and, in its ufological guise as an element of the UFO Syndrome, possesses graver implications.
An important ufological popularizer of the ETH is Donald Keyhoe. In his first book, The Flying Saucers are Real (1950), he wrestles with the question of the origin of the flying discs. Having been pushed to the ETH by a process of elimination, he tries “to imagine how they [ETIs] might look” (136). Having read what he could of what we today call exobiology, he understands that there are “all kinds of possibilities.” Then, he makes a telling confession:
It was possible, I knew, that the spacemen might look grotesque to us. But I clung to the stubborn feeling that they would resemble man. That came, of course, from an inborn feeling of man’s superiority over all living things. It carried over into the feeling that any thinking, intelligent being, whether on Mars or Wolf 359’s planets, should have evolved in the same form.
Keyhoe, here, is either ignorant (which he certainly seems to be concerning evolution) or disingenuous. The “stubborn feeling” that the ET pilots of the flying saucers “would resemble man” is hardly “inborn”. A longstanding thesis among thinkers concerned with the ecological crisis is that the thoughtless abuse of the natural world by, especially, Western industrial society is aided and abetted by its Judaeo-Christian heritage. Famously, in Genesis, man is made in God’s own image (I.26) and given dominion over creation (I.27) (an idea mocked with a theosophical flavour in Yeats’ early poem “The Indian Upon God”!). This (what a philosopher might term ontotheological) anthropocentrism is the source of Keyhoe’s feeling and more importantly it serves to reinforce capitalism’s assumption that anything and everything on (and off!) the earth is a potential resource to be exploited for profit.
There’s a strikingly illustrative scene in the film Clearcut (1991). The manager of a logging company is abducted by an ambivalent character, who is either a Native militant or, more interestingly, a nature spirit come to revenge the ruthless clearcutting of the forest. The manager is tortured in ways that mirror the loggers’ treatment of trees and, at one point, the militant holds the manager over a cliff overlooking a breathtaking natural vista, asking him, “What do you see? What do you see?” to which the manager answers, desperately mystified by the question, “Nothing!”. The fateful confluence of the Judaeo-Christian ontotheological anthropomorphism and the rapaciousness of capitalism blind humankind to both nonhuman intelligence and the innate value of nonhuman life. I have argued at length elsewhere that any unprejudiced reflection on and consequent non-anthropocentric conception of intelligence radically dethrones and decenters whatever human intelligence might believe itself to be. It might appear ironic, then, that The Anomalist can share links to UFOs and Contactees in the same space as others to new discoveries in the realm of plant and animal intelligence.
Another irony is discernible in the concerns expressed by both the Space Brothers and other ETs. If the ETH is underwritten by a religiously-inspired anthropocentrism that in turn supports the economic system whose activity has in a matter of hardly two centuries resulted in the latest mass extinction, then the striking anthropomorphism of ETs might be said to be an imagination at the very least consistent with this catastrophically destructive social order. However, as is well-known, the Space Brothers of the Contactees landed to warn us of the dangers of atomic weapons, while abductees or Experiencers report being shown distressing images of nuclear war and environmental destruction; there has been from the start an environmental/ecological dimension to ET encounters, consistent with the view that the reports are inspired by the anxieties engendered by technoscientific development in so-called advanced societies.
As compelling is the case that the ETH is a symptom of a deeper, mortal malaise in Western society, the matter is, of course, more complex. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry Turtle Island (1974), Gary Snyder writes (47):
…Japan quibbles for words on
what kinds of whales they can kill?
A once-great Buddhist nation
dribbles methyl mercury
in the sea.
Here, Snyder reminds us that the relation between religion and economy is a complicated question; however much the Judaeo-Christian idolization of the “human form divine” is harmonious with the profit-driven and otherwise mindless exploitation of the natural world, religious views that, in this case, are overtly concerned with non-human life exist, however uneasily, alongside such insensitive destructiveness. There is, moreover, an analogous paradox in certain aboriginal worldviews, which, on the one hand, speak of “the flying people” (birds) and “the crawling people” (snakes) and that have been the inspiration for radical ecological initiatives, such as the push to give rivers and ecosystems rights under the law, while on the other, their understanding of the UFO phenomenon invokes stories of Star People, who, at first glance, seem to be as humanoid as any Venusian. These paradoxes pose new questions and open curious avenues of investigation regarding the globality of the UFO phenomenon and the equally global extent of the society whose technoscientific character the ETH might be said to reflect and affirm.
The theme, as poet Walt Whitman would say, has vista. The belief in ETI is itself paradoxical in character: it is both widely-held (by more than half the population in the US, UK, and Germany) but thought unserious, fit only to inspire light entertainments or crackpot obsessions. Yet, as the psychoanalytic study of the trivial shows, the margin reflects the deepest concerns of the centre; indeed, that these concerns are exiled as flaky is precisely a sign of their gravity. The ETH symptomatically expresses profound aspects of human self-regard that have equally grave consequences for social behaviour.
In the Preface to the First English Edition of his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, Jung writes
…I have made an interesting and quite unexpected discovery. 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.
Surely the same holds true today. For the general public, whether UFO sightings are in fact on the down- or up-swing, they are reported on in some part of the world daily, and dramatic sightings (e.g., the Nimitz Encounter) are given press both proper to and amplifying their singularity. This ready fascination extends to the belief in Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI): astronomical anomalies (e.g., the Fast Radio Bursts recently recorded by a radio telescope in Canada or the recent passage of the Oumuamua object through the solar system) seem invariably to evoke some reference to ETI, even jokingly, while the entertainment industry and its audience never seem to tire of fictions inspired by what ufologists term the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), that UFOs are spaceships piloted by almost invariably humanoid ETIs. Even in the rarefied world of ufologists and ufophiles the ETH along with vast, complex speculative universes inspired by insider testimony stirs an inordinate amount of interest compared to more careful if not sceptical “scientific ufology” or psychosocial approaches to the phenomenon. This drama is presently being staged after a fashion in the reception of History’s Project Blue Book. The series premiere was well-received by those who find in it their fascination with the reality of flying saucers and the suppression of the truth of ET visitation played out (again), while “serious” ufologists have for the most part proven vociferously critical of the dramatic freedoms the series has taken with the historical facts.
“This… surely merits the psychologist’s interest” Jung went on to write concerning this tendency. In pursuing a purely psychological angle, Jung adopts a quasi-phenomenological approach, bracketing the question of the being, reality or nature of the UFO to concentrate on its purely immanent, subject-oriented, if not subjective, meaning. Jung was able to have insights and draw conclusions independent of any claims concerning the ontological status of the UFO. In taking this approach, he sets an example for psychologists, sociologists, and researchers in related disciplines or of like orientation to explore the psychosocial aspects of the UFO phenomenon independent of controversies about whether or not “the flying saucers are real”. This dimension of the UFO phenomenon apart from the question of the reality of UFOs might be termed “the UFO Effect”.
Despite adopting this phenomenological stance, Jung’s position was also curiously (if sagely) ambivalent, for, at points, he ventures the possibility that UFO sightings and close encounters might find their explanation in purely psychological, if nonpathological, terms. He refers to what he sees as analogous occurrences, collective visions experienced by soldiers in the First World War and, more problematically, by thousands of witnesses at Fatima. In attempting to explain the reality or nature of the UFO as ultimately a purely subjective if possibly collective phenomenon, he sets ufology on the path to the Psychosocial Hypothesis. This “psychosocial ufology” as practiced embryonically by Jung, then, has two arms, one that explores the UFO Effect, another that seeks to solve the UFO mystery by explaining its nature in terms immanent to the psyche, society, and culture; the UFO is not caused by a real object but by subjective mechanisms, personal or communal. Jung, of course, also kept an open mind as to whether or not the flying saucers might not prove to be real objects, as well.
Nevertheless, the line of argument developed by sceptics and debunkers around the time Jung was thinking about and writing on the Flying Saucers might be understood as a version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis. Sighting reports of UFOs and close encounters were not so much explained as explained away as being so many misidentifications, hallucinations, or outright hoaxes inspired by the anxieties of the early Cold War, i.e., UFOs were not real, physical objects, but various errors and failings on the side of the human observer or agent. The efforts of the sceptics make common cause with what I will call “scientific ufology”, not so much because of the latter’s methods of research (which only rarely approach the scientific) but because of the focus and assumptions of that research. The scientific ufologist seeks either to solve or dissolve the mystery of the UFO by discovering or otherwise determining one or more identifiable entities (objects) that explain it, to make the Unidentified Flying Object into an identified object or set of objects. Tendencies in scientific ufology echo Jung’s experience: the ETH “suits the general opinion”, while more cautious, careful research receives short shrift from the general public or derisive rejection institutionally to the point that most of it might be said to be pursued by an “Invisible College”, though with some exceptions.
The psychologically interesting way the fascination, if not belief, in the reality of the UFO—what I will term “ufophilia”—takes precedence over more sceptical approaches reveals how ufological (if not more general) interest in the phenomenon orbits the question, as it might have been posed in Jung’s day, “Are the flying saucers real?”. But this question cannot be said to govern ufology as a whole, i.e., the field is not accurately divided between what is characterized here as the psychosocial and scientific approaches to the question of UFO reality. A distinction that would schematize the field rigorously would distinguish those who pose the question of UFO reality from those who do not, i.e., those who seek to identify or otherwise explain the UFO (let me call them “UFO Realists”), those who take the UFO as the object of their research, as opposed to those who bracket the question of the reality of the UFO altogether, the phenomenological ufologist, whose object of investigation is the UFO Effect. A rigorous division of the field is therefore one based not on method but object.
One consequence of this reorganization of the field is that it inverts the valuation of the “the general opinion”. Where “the general opinion” is most concerned with the reality of the UFO, phenomenological ufology is focussed exclusively on the UFO Effect. Indeed, the ufophilia of “the general opinion” is itself an aspect of the UFO Effect, a topic for (methodologically phenomenological) psychosocial research. Moreover, by extension, scientific ufology, as a ufophilic institutional (or para-institutional) practice and discourse, is itself yet another aspect of the UFO Effect. UFO Realism is therefore subsumed by the UFO Effect. It, further, follows that phenomenological ufology is itself part of the UFO Effect, entailing the possibility of, if not a duty to, a philosophical self-regard, a demand inessential (though not without value) to investigations focussed on UFO reality. An unsettling irony is implied: where the ufophile and scientific ufologist, UFO Realists both, focus on an object whose objective reality and nature remain questionable and mysterious, unreal until proven real, the object of the phenomenological ufologist (the UFO Effect) is unquestionably real. The one seeks the real and misses it, while the other surrenders the real and finds it. In this regard, the generally held prejudice that values the natural sciences and STEM over the social sciences and humanities is overturned. As the existing scholarly literature shows, it is in fact possible to study the UFO in its guise as the UFO Effect in the disciplines of anthropology, cultural studies, ethnology, history, political science, psychology, religious studies, or sociology whereas to pose the question of UFO reality in the natural sciences is by far and away anathema.
But are researchers in these disciplines the French conveniently call les sciences humaines in fact “phenomenological” in the way I sketch here? Hardly! John A. Saliba describes the situation in his still-valuable study “UFO Contactee Phenomena from a Sociopsychological Perspective” (1995):
The disagreement between sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists on the one hand, and ufologists and UFO contactees on the other, is both theoretical and methodological. Like natural scientists, behavioral scientists cannot accept the flying saucer theory because it has not been verified by or subjected to definite empirical and objective tests. In other words, they can study UFO reports and analyze human psychological conditions, but not the objects and sightings that are said to have triggered the experiences that led to the reports. Ufologists do not follow rigid procedures that are universally accepted in the scientific world. They unfortunately leave the impression that they are relying more on the individual’s subjective experience… (238)
Saliba’s estimate of the situation is revealingly accurate. He distinguishes behavioural scientists from ufologists and UFO contactees based upon their respective rejection and acceptance of the “flying saucer theory”, i.e., the ETH. However, self-professed scientific ufologists, J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée, had already explicitly rejected the ETH in the 1970s. Moreover, the statement that the behavioural scientist “can study UFO reports …, but not the objects and sightings that are said to have triggered the experiences that led to the reports,” ironically echoes a statement from the Preface to Vallée’s first book, Anatomy of a Phenomenon: Unidentified Objects in Space—A Scientific Appraisal (1965):
The phenomenon under study is not the UFO, which is not reproducible at will in the laboratory, but the report written by the witness. This report can be observed, studied and communicated by professional scientists; thus defined, the phenomenon we investigate is obviously real. (vii)
The scholars Saliba describes collapse all interest in the UFO phenomenon into a ufophilic belief in the ETH. In doing so, they seem to be more subject to currents in the the UFO Effect than the evidence and conclusions mustered by those with orthodox training and institutional positions who have engaged in the precarious, preliminary work of a scientific ufology: astronomers (Hynek), physicists (James E. McDonald, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter A. Sturrock), polymaths (Vallée), and others. This prejudice has arguably more to do with the social history of the UFO, the concerted efforts of the US government to discredit all serious interest in the phenomenon, that reached its climax with the 1968 Condon Report. Peter Sturrock’s reaction to reading it is telling: “…far from supporting Condon’s conclusions, I thought the evidence presented in the report suggested that something was going on that needed study.” Nevertheless, the deep-seated, orthodox rejection of the matter need not be mendacious, as it likely was in the case of Condon et al.; Jung himself, as is well-known, adopted a sceptical stance, for which he had good reason:
as is abundantly clear from the contradictory and ‘impossible’ assertions made by the rumour. It is quite right that they should meet with criticism, scepticism, and open rejection, and if anyone should see behind them nothing more than a phantasm that deranges the minds of men and engenders rationalistic resistances, he would have nothing but our sympathy. (107)
Indeed, the majority of what would pass itself off as ufology surely deserves the harsh dismissiveness Saliba’s scholars share with Jung.
Is it the case, then, that “the general opinion” and UFO research, whether conducted by the human or natural sciences, is actually organized according to how one answers the question of UFO Reality? Yes and no. Materially, in fact, because of the modern history of the phenomenon and its reception (the UFO Effect in all its aspects) public and scholarly opinion on the matter seems to come down to an acceptance or rejection of the ETH. Such would polls and the sometimes stated positions of institutional researchers tell us, a curious fact of the UFO Effect that calls for investigation itself. In principle, conceptually, however, an argument can be made (as above) to orient research around one’s stance to the question of UFO Reality, i.e., whether or not one asks it at all, not one’s answer.
The modern history of the UFO and that of Jung’s and Vallée’s engagements with the phenomenon are instructive. The beginning of the modern era is marked by the USAF’s investigative projects (Sign, Grudge, and Bluebook), which tangled with both the question of the reality and nature of the flying dics and their social implications, in terms of propaganda and psychological warfare. Jung begins with a sceptical approach that reveals a manifold psychological content, but he ends having to admit the possibility of the flying saucers’ being real. Vallée begins as a scientific ufologist, curious to investigate the physical reality and nature of the phenomenon, but comes to realize the equal importance and mystery of the UFO Effect, from which point his work proceeds along both tracks. Ufology, then, if not “the general opinion,” might be said to have a positive and negative pole: the UFO Effect as a plenum of constantly growing data, ready and ripe for new research; the UFO Reality as a question, a space, a maw with a seemingly bottomless appetite for new speculations.
Addendum: (And Speaking Philosophically…)
In principle, I can see no reason a researcher in the human sciences need take a stance on the reality and nature of the UFO, however true it is that they in fact do. That a phenomenological ufology should at the same time necessarily or tacitly take a stance with regard to UFO Reality would reveal a philosophically pleasing deconstructive (in a rigorous sense) symmetry (the attempt to articulate which first motivated this post), but I cannot at present imagine a sufficiently persuasive argument in this direction. It is however tempting to propose that scientific ufology and phenomenological ufology are related in a way that is perhaps premissed on analogy to the post-Kantian understanding of Reality and Knowledge, Being and Judgement or Consciousness: the Realists wrestle over the nature of the UFO as a thing-in-itself, necessarily, in order to debate the question at all (is there an objective correlate to the content of reported sightings and encounters?), repressing, ironically, the phenomenality of the object of their contentions if not investigations (the UFO Effect), while the ufological phenomenologists risk a strict, methodological idealism that would drain the being ([objective] reality) from the thing-in-itself that is, ironically, the condition for the phenomenon in the the first place. But this is to say too much too quickly. One can imagine, very roughly, too, a para-Lacanian view….
Rich Reynolds over at UFO Conjectures started the year with another salvo aimed atwhat he calls the “madness” of Ancient Astronaut theorists, UFO enthusiasts fascinated with Disclosure, and other members of UFO community titled “How the arts don’t explain UFOs but do explain the UFO community“. I’m the last one to maintain that the arts might explain UFOs, but that throw-away first half his post’s title sparked a reflection.
To say too much too briefly, the UFO is more like an aesthetic object than an object amenable to or explainable by the natural sciences. The latter is ultimately in principle explainable by or reducible to what Descartes called clear and distinct ideas. An aesthetic object, however, that is exhausted by a particular explication (rendered in clear and distinct ideas) ceases to be an aesthetic object, the object itself becomes thereby disposable, replaceable by its explanation. Aesthetic objects, though produced within concrete historical contexts and subject to myriad receptions, never succumb to being fully explained. They are open-ended, endlessly suggestive mysterious objects that resist identification with any one explanation.
A recent remark by UFO Conjectures‘ Rich Reynolds, a passage from Jacques Vallee’s Revelations, and my recent interventions with M. J. Banias’ thoughts on the UFO-community-as-counterculture all swirled together in this morning’s vortex and gave me pause for thought.
In the tempest-in-a-teacup (tsunami-in-a-saucer?) of reactions to History’s new series Project Blue Book, Rich Reynolds writes that he’s “ashamed” of “all UFO enthusiasts who accept this horrendous ‘entertainment’ as a worthy addition to the UFO canon.”
Just what might be said to constitute the ufological, if not the UFO, canon, was brought home to me as I was following up the topic of the sociopolitics of the UFO.
I find M. J. Banias’ approach not uncompelling, and I look forward to its book-length exposition, and I was not unpleased with the admittedly very provisional, preliminary notes I’d written on the question, until I reviewed some of the existing research. A foundational and still vitally pertinent book on the sociology of belief in UFOs is the 1995 volume The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis). One of the ten chapters is John A. Saliba‘s “UFO Contactee Phenomena from a Sociopsychological Perspective: A Review,” forty-three pages, including seven-and-a-half of references, outlining sociological and psychological approaches to the phenomenon from 1948 to its present.
Despite its likely being somewhat dated after more than two decades, Saliba’s paper concretely maps the foundations for any subsequent sociology of the UFO community. In terms of sociological approaches, he provides an overview of the various ways of conceiving of the UFO mythology, the cultural context of the UFO, the social status of ufophiles, folkloric dimensions of UFO sighting and close encounter reports, and of the ways people group together to share their varying kinds and degrees of fascination with the phenomenon. In the course of this survey, I was reminded of G. E. Ashworth’s structuralist approach, of the important distinction to be drawn between sightings and reports, and research that had already been done on what Banias’ might call “the UFO subculture”. I was made aware, as well, to my shame, of the shallowness and fragility of the foundations of my own most recent reflections on these matters.
Whether one believes the phenomenon begins no earlier that 24 June 1947 or not, the phenomenon is one with a history. And with this history goes a parallel history of reflection, investigation, and research. And in this regard, writing about the UMMO affair around the same time Saliba is researching his survey, Vallee makes the following observation:
There are now three generations of UMMO ‘researchers’…
The third generation is young and naive. It has neither the long-term background in ufology of experienced researchers…nor the healthy scientific skepticism of the sociologists. They start from scratch and they believe anything that comes along. (125-6)
Surely, more senior members of “the UFO community” recognize in those who flock to websites devoted to Exopolitics or Disclosure, who comment feverishly on the universe of YouTube channels devoted to these topics or “the latest sighting” those who “start from scratch and [who] believe anything that comes along.” But, given the modern phenomenon goes back over seventy years, who can claim a complete knowledge of even the history of the phenomenon, of the “UFO canon”? On the one hand, anyone acquainted with it knows the phenomenon is global, but is it not the case (and I ask honestly not rhetorically) that ufology is still predominantly parochial, e.g., American ufology proceeding as if the land mass of the continental United States is the most important zone for sighting and encounter reports? And even if this is less the case within the context of the more generalized globalization of culture facilitated by the internet, has the whole story of the UFO up to, say, 2001 even been written (a review of Richard Dolan’s UFOs for the 21st Century Mind is in the works!)? And does not the same hold true for those who seek to “reframe the debate” (and, yes, a review of Robbie Graham et al.’s UFOs: Reframing the Debate is also in the works) or those who would reflect on the phenomenon’s sociocultural (or, as they can say in German, geistig, “spiritual”) significance?
Given the perplexing nature of the phenomenon itself and the historical depth of our various relationships to it anyone tempted to tug at the veils of its mystery must at some point find themselves out of their depth, which is salutary, for it prompts us to find again our footing.