M. J. Banias’ recent posts on the UFO community spurred me to reflect on the sociology and politics of the UFO as such and the UFO community. The topic is one with enough history, complexity, and open-endedness to found an academic career or research institute. What I present here, then, is hardly more than very provisional reflections on the matter, more aimed at delineating the problem and imagining how to approach it than any findings or conclusions! (Astute readers will note I don’t delve into the myths of Men in Black or of Nazi UFOs, among many other imaginably pertinent topics).
Offhand, there are at least three sociopolitical dimensions to the UFO: 1. the (reported) politics of the ufonauts themselves (in terms of either what they say or how they behave), 2. the sociopolitics of the UFO community, and 3. the sociopolitical implications of the UFO phenomenon and its reception.
The Sociopolitics of the Ufonauts
What have the Ufonauts themselves said about their respective societies? Ufonauts tend to be tight-lipped (when they have lips), but the Space Brothers of the Contactees and channelers are overwhelmingly loquacious. To tease out the politics from the communications received since the 1940s (and before, from the denizens of the Solar System encountered by Swedenborg, the various Ascended Masters of Blavatsky’s Theosophy?…) would demand the dedication of a team of dogged readers, which, luckily, would not have to start from scratch. There is already a small body of research, produced primarily by religious studies scholars. One example of an explicitly worked-out utopia, however, whose blueprint comes from the ETs who created all life on earth (according to their designated spokesman Rael Maitreya) can be read about here….
There is, further, what is said or cobbled together about the politics of ETs and the organization of their various races. In the 1980s, stories about crashed and retrieved saucers, their dead and living captured pilots, and subsequent contact and treaties with their respective races began to circulate. This current of rumour has since grown into a maelstrom, a vast and growing science fiction epic, involving dozens of races, suppressed technology, Breakaway civilizations and secret cabals on and off the earth, which, at present, is conveniently brought together as Exopolitics. This vast tapestry is stitched together from the testimony of a growing body of whistleblowers cultured by the Disclosure movement. The ETs and their societies in this material are human, all-too-human, with their technology (however “advanced”) and various Good and Evil roles. Much like in the Star Trek franchise, each race or species seems to function little more than as a nation on earth….
A more interesting study (perhaps) would be to determine in an almost anthropological or ethnographical manner what conclusions can be drawn from observations gleaned from close encounter reports. How do the ufonauts behave with and toward each other?…
Of course, from the perspective of the social sciences, at least, this body of data is informative inversely proportional to its volume. Channeled communications from Ashtar, interplanetary travelogues from Rael, or the speculative universe constructed by Michael Salla or Steven Greer reveal more about these respective sources and those who buy what they say than about the The Great White Brotherhood, the planet of the Elohim, or The Galactic Confederation. Likewise, experiences undergone during an Out-of-Body experience or retrieved through hypnotic regression are more akin to religious experiences or dreams and are revelatory in the same ways. Even if we take “sobre” close encounter reports at face value, there’s still the question of the truth of what the ufonauts show or communicate, given their bizarre, impish, and perhaps deceptive behaviour….
The Sociopolitics of the UFO Community
As proved problematic in Banias’ reflections, defining the UFO community in a rigorous way is vexedly difficult, but, perhaps, rewardingly so.
In the course of articulating my response to Banias, I proposed one solution, in line with how I understand his own approach: one can, offhand, perhaps characterize an apparently easily definable group I call “ET Fundamentalists”, those who believe UFOs are real vehicles for really existing nonhuman intelligences (Alien Others). Were it only so simple. For example, if membership in the UFO community is determined by belief, then the community makes up a portion of the general population, not necessarily those who would self-identify as members of a UFO community: a recent survey found that more than half of people in the US, the UK, and Germany believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), while 30% of the 54% of Americans who believe in Extraterrestrial Intelligence believe ETs have visited the earth (but the truth is suppressed). As I wrote in my first intervention in the matter, if membership is dependent on belief
then who counts as a member …? Those fascinated by the mystery, who consume the videos, movies, books …, who maybe attend conferences, whose obsessions and beliefs and products are too flaky for the mainstream? Those innocents whom the mystery touches, witnesses and Experiencers? Those who study the mystery in orthodox manners (e.g., David M. Jacobs as a historian or John E. Mack as a psychiatrist) or who, like [Jacques] Vallee or other members of the Invisible College, bring to bear the research methods of the physical sciences? Academics and others, like myself, who may not be focused on the UFO mystery itself but are more puzzled by the social phenomenon, from the point of view of religious studies, sociology, cultural studies, etc.? Members of the police, armed forces, and intelligence communities who themselves are either Experiencers or are tasked with dealing with the mystery or even using the mystery for their own ends, (e.g. the infamous Richard Doty?). Journalists who investigate and write on the mystery, whether a one-off article or a book or books?…
A flip-side to the problems of defining the UFO community by its beliefs is that however unusual these beliefs, the vast majority of those who hold them, I’d wager, lead lives quite in harmony with the social order: they hold jobs, pay their taxes, obey the laws, and otherwise behave like good liberal-capitalist subjects. Even members of groups such as the Raelians, whose beliefs are surely in the minority and who, on occasion, dress differently, behave dramatically, and proselytize, are, otherwise, quite at home in society. It’s only very rarely (e.g. more notoriously Heaven’s Gate) that UFO Fundamentalists ever venture social changes even as radical as the Autonomist squatters in Hamburg and Berlin. I’m tempted to argue that much of the UFO subculture is marked less by its shared beliefs than by aspects of its patterns of consumption….
Assuming for the moment we can identify members of the UFO community, what are, in fact, the politics of some of its members? Jacques Vallee is haughtily dismissive of the French Left. Richard Dolan is a staunch believer in that precarious wedding of representative democracy and the free market. Michael Salla et al. seem to support Trump and his crusade against the Deep State (whatever they might mean by that expression). Indeed, the UFO more often than not draws into its vortex libertarian, reactionary, conspiratorial themes… The only overtly leftist political stance with an interest in UFOs I know of are the Posadists….
More acutely, however, there are moments when the UFO believer bumps up against state institutions, usually military and intelligence. Most obviously, in the case of hackers, such as Gary McKinnon, they break laws in pursuit of “the truth” about UFOs and ET. Trespassers in the area of Nellis Air Force Base also come to mind….
At the end of the day, however, it shouldn’t be that difficult or impossible a question. Given the plethora of data gathered by Google, Facebook, et al., a sufficiently canny graduate student with a research grant should be able to very precisely delimit various communities according to sets of specific criteria, a kind of “digital sociology” analogous to the digital humanities. Given the possibility (if not actuality—and here my own ignorance of contemporary methods of sociological research is all too painfully apparent) of such a digital sociology (the term is actually used with a different sense in the discipline itself), it’s not too difficult to imagine how such a serious sociological investigation would seek to characterize the social formations of various UFO groups, e.g., research groups, formal and informal; communities, corporeal and virtual, etc. The advantage of such a methodology is its precision. Not only can social groups be characterized by their predilections, but by more materialist considerations, such as class, gender, and race. Moreover, such an analysis could rigorously describe UFO subcultures whose social dynamics could then be studied: how do the UFO-philes behave among themselves in their various communities, fleshly and virtual…?
Perhaps the most important question is the one surveyed year after year since the appearance of Flying Saucers, what portion of the population believes in ETI and that UFOs are its visiting spaceships. It’s the contents of this belief that hold the most interesting implications. In one regard, there is a clear class-struggle visible in the contradiction between the sincere claims of witnesses and experiencers and those elites who will have no truck with the wild and ignorant tales of such benighted hicks, between the interests of researchers working even within the institutional discourses of the human and natural sciences and those orthodoxies (at least) in control of these institutions that will not let their disciplines be sullied by such pseudoscience. (The case of physicist James E. McDonald, whose UFO research discredited his much more mainstream work, is a case in point). There are as well further patterns that call for more research, gender, for example (the prevalence of women among abductees (?))…
The Politics of the UFO
More interesting, perhaps, and, perhaps, more easily probed, are the sociopolitical implications of the UFO, both overtly (the reaction of social institutions to the mystery) and implicitly (what the various interpretations of the phenomenon imply socioculturally, ideologically, spiritually, etc., which has been the focus of my more scholarly efforts so far).
If the UFO, if not those interested in the mystery, is at all related to power, then we should see the powers that be interact with the phenomenon. At the civil level, the institutions of the press and education interact with the phenomenon; in the latter case, not only at the level of the natural sciences (however marginally or surreptitiously), but of the social sciences and humanities, too. The culture and entertainment industries take it up as material, and its imagery has been commodified in a vastly varied manner. Public officials have played a role, usually in response to sightings and encounters, smoothing a community’s ruffled feathers. Police and military personnel interact with the phenomenon in their responding to reports or interacting with the phenomenon themselves. Given intrusions into a nation’s airspace is a breach of national security, countries’ defense institutions have initiated investigations into individual interactions with the phenomenon and into the phenomenon itself….
Perhaps the most compelling evidence the UFO subculture is a concern of power are the interventions by intelligence services in regards to UFO research groups or new religious movements (NRMs), whether by their outright creation, infiltration, or manipulation, actions that have arguably resulted in the ruined lives of researchers, such as Morris Jessup, James E. McDonald, and Paul Bennewitz. Jacques Vallee has argued in his Revelations (1991) that military and intelligence agencies might well have exploited the phenomenon themselves, for various purposes (training, psychological warfare, social engineering experiments…). These more surreptitious activities have, at least, a certain blowback, eroding public trust in government, military and intelligence agencies, reinforcing the “paranoid style” in American (at least) politics. Little surprise that some writers of both research and fiction connect secret human experimentation (e.g., Tuskagee, etc.) with speculations about Alien Abductions and Animal Mutilations….And of even graver import are those UFO cases that have involved physical injury or death, as the Cash/Lundrum affair and the death of Thomas Mantell….