Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte? Reading Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret Against the Grain

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 beginning was the Word”: Concerning Jacques Vallée’s Stratagem and the Wilson/Davis document and related matters

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”.

A Note on Twin Peaks Season 3 and Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret

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!

“…they know not what they do”: What to Make of Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret by Jacques F. Vallée and Paola Leopizzi Harris

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.

“It is hard to see how any other outcome is possible”: The Platonism of S.E.T.I.

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.

Sightings: Monday 24 May 2021: Polarized Politics, Propaganda, and Post-Truth Populism

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.

Shining a flashlight down the rabbit hole: some reflections on post-truth populist thinking

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.

Crash / Retrieval Syndrome as Visionary Rumour or Folklore

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.

Deep Roots of Post-Truth

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.

Facts, Truth, Meaning, and the “Metamodern” UFO

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.

Sighting: Sunday 25 April 2021: Justin E. Smith’s “Against Intelligence”

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.

“…news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome…”

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.

Sightings: Saturday 8 November 2020

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…

Pedantic Outrage or Sloppy Scholarship?

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.

A member of a Facebook group I belong to shared this quotation from the latest book by Jeffrey J. Kripal, The Flip:

kripal on kant

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 Shines a Brilliant Light on the Wilson Documents

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!


In the Air: Problems with Jung, Archetypes, and Flying Saucers

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.”

Kenneth Arnold’s sketch of his “flying saucers”

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….


When Synchronicity Fails

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.

“What we have here is a failure…” Wait. We’ve been here before…

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).



Piping in on Hanks and Bullard on the Myth and Mystery of UFOs

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.

The Oceans, Anthills, and Elf Churches

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:Imj9

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….

The UFO, Mystery, and Différance

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.”

“UFO-themed poetry”: seriously

Over at Mysterious Universe, Nick Redfern essays a topic dear to Skunkworks (being the site’s raison d’être), UFO poetry. However, despite accessing’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 (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.

RE: Medieval UFOs: footnotes for Swancer, Sprague & Hanks

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….

“UFO ‘Cults'”: Seriously? A Public Service Announcement

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.

UFOs. Seriously.

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.

, a Bloomberg opinion columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University, urges his readers to “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.”

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?]