It wasn’t that long ago that those long intrigued by the UFO mystery were tempted to declare the phenomenon and its study (ufology) moribund if not downright dead in the water. Yet, today, they’re blogging on the edge of their seats and even, when their breath isn’t bated, whispering the word “Disclosure”. Their excitement has been resurrected by recent revelations in print and television (History’s series Unidentified) concerning apparent encounters with classically super-performing aeroforms in 2014 and 2015 by Navy pilots in training maneuvers from Virginia to Florida off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. This about-face got me thinking.
As early as 1965, Jacques Vallée grasped that “The phenomenon under study is not the UFO…but the report written by the witness” (Anatomy of a Phenomenon, vii). However, a variation on this methodology, one adopted by John Keel (and many others) as recounted in his Operation Trojan Horse (1970), is the collection and collation of reports of witness reports from the news media. The example of Keel’s practice suggests the possibility that waves of interest in the phenomenon are not directly related to any patterns in the phenomenon itself but are mediated by patterns of reporting on the phenomenon in the media.
In a media environment governed in the final analysis by profit, as in the case of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets that have recently carried these sensational stories and op ed pieces on them, it is tempting to attribute this sudden, revitalized excitement not so much to new developments in the field (after all, the sightings recently on record bear all the hallmarks of pilot encounters from the late 1940s to today) but to patterns of demand and supply.
If we begin at the crest of a wave of interest, UFO stories will sell well. However, public interest can and will reach a saturation point and interest and sales will fall off. After a sufficient time, however, the potential interest in the phenomenon will again be ripe for stimulation, and reports appearing at that time will swell another wave of fascination and the market for stories, journalistic and fictional. Consciously or not, the media might be said to employ a kind of rotation method (as in agriculture) when it comes (at least) to the UFO topic because of the nature of their customers’ attention spans.
These recent dramatic encounters may well be nothing more (again) than, as astrophysicist Leon Golub opines, “bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, [or] neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight.” But, like those pilots spoofed by their new, unfamiliar instrumentation, those surfing this most recent swell of excited interest may, as well, be merely taken for a ride by the code running the media.
Addendum: Since my first attempt at articulating the reflections above, Chris Rutkowski has made public his own, not unrelated, thoughts on this most recent media furor, worth a gander.
15 thoughts on “The Message of the Medium”
It seems to me that UFO stories can trace their lineage (narrative and perhaps contextual) to the gothic imagination of the 19th century (via perhaps the “weird” subgenre of the early to mid 20th century). And just as the unsparing, technophobic fable of a Frankenstein was, following its canonization, cannibalized by numberless iterations of the same pop culture pastiche, in print but also, crucially, in film, and regurgitated as a Punch and Judy show, so the UFO mythos in our day; the point being here that it is perhaps not merely greedy millennial press barons that are squeezing the “encounter” story for its very last drop of profit (monetary and imaginational), but our culture as a whole, from frivolous X Files revivals to – respectfully – the nether regions of the studious blogosphere. The NY Times profit margin is merely a parasitical slug subsisting on the neuroses of our kaleidoscoping, narrative-suffused minds.
Thanks for commenting, Pharmakon.
Given our “culture as a whole” is capitalist, little escapes the commodity form, most especially “popular” culture. I do include nonjournalistic narratives in my reflection, too, mind you. What struck me, in however a (very) nascent fashion, was the way media is hardly a simple, transparent medium, merely reactive to real-world events, but a functional part of that world, and as such subject to the forces that govern capitalist society, with effects of its own. Marxist literary scholars might argue the same about literature….
It’s a central thesis of mine in general that the UFO mythos as positing that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships functions ideologically, reifying the (capitalist or neoliberal) “technocracy” (not quite the right term…) that is, as Juergen Habermas and Herbert Marcuse posited already in the 1970s, the ideology of the so-called advanced societies, a situation not without its environmental consequences.
No, not a simple, and certainly not transparent, medium, but a medium nonetheless, as well as an agent; one that simultaneously reflects technocapitalist orthodoxy while also constructing new ideations of “anxiety” towards that selfsame technocapitalism,of which the “creature” (whether a leaky zombie or a praying mantis travelling the galaxy in a surrealist spinning top) is an example.
Whether “the culture” conjures up these ideations the better to consolidate “technocracy” with by offering a safety valve for festering neuroses and collective nightmares while feigning criticism, or whether “the culture” genuinely reflects the schizoid logic inherent in neoliberalism – that is a moot question; to me one best left to the rarefied altitudes populated by the theorists you refer to.
What I think should be stressed, however, is that the “rediscovery” of and periodic fads associated with the encounter mythology (and others like it) is not merely a commodifying, false consciousness-inducing media ploy (which I thought, perhaps mistakenly, your post hinted at); it is also a genuinely democratic, self-perpetrated illusion (and I don’t use the term disparagingly); no, of course, not unmediated, but self-perpetrated.
But that is perhaps as moot a point as the one regarding “the culture’s” real or imagined (or both) hegemony…
Pharmakon, we seem to agree on a lot.
How, though, does the ET induce an anxiety to the status quo? Its anthropomorphism tacitly affirms our historical contingency (capitalism, technology) is natural.
You’re correct in understanding I don’t see the UFO mythos as a kind of propaganda, unintentional or otherwise. It can’t help but be commodified (that’s capitalism), though it seems proximally and for the most part ideological (in the way I indicate above, reifying the present order).
In what sense is the mythos a “genuinely democratic, self-perpetrated illusion”? The demos cannot escape the commodity form, and that illusion functions ideologically. Or are you thinking something along the lines of what I propose in the post “Who Knows?”?
“How, though, does the ET induce an anxiety to the status quo? Its anthropomorphism tacitly affirms our historical contingency (capitalism, technology) is natural.”
Its anthropomorphism is equal parts uncanny-valley repugnance (which even Hollywood schmaltz cannot dilute) and scapegoat mechanism. Yet you’re right, there is also a “positive”, or rather aspirational aspect to it, and in a sense the ET embodies the grotesque neverending mimesis whereby “we” desire “their” superior technology, and, insofar as “our” technology appears to have reached its zenith (itself a source of anxiety), the technology of the Divine. And here is where the aforementioned scapegoat mechanism comes in: the most potent variation of the ET story appears to be the one in which the ET is dissected by a shadowy elite of “medical experts”, a comfortable reification of humanity’s technosuperiority perpetrating the most ritualized of sacrifices. And if ET cannot be dissected at length, it must be destroyed, which is the quintessential leitmotif of the entire sci-fi canon. The scapegoating of ET puts our technomimesis on hold and neutralizes the very real violence it foreshadows. Of course this mimesis is not unique to our own capitalist, commodity-obsessed society; it exists in partially (and pre) technological societies, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the pervasiveness of the “sky god that brings fire and sacrifices himself (or is sacrificed by the other gods)” archetype (if we discount the “ancient aliens” hypothesis; also currently being milked to death on TV).
This is the sense in which I think the mythos is (at least partially) a “genuinely democratic, self-perpetrated illusion” that goes beyond ideologically-mediated commodities.
PS: Are you only accessible via blog now? (who wants to know? A former B-student and current petty functionary 🙂 )
Don’t tell the investors our technology has reached its zenith, or writers of tha new Star Trek series.
You do put your finger on something interesting, the Alien Autopsy motif: the alien (human, all-too-human) is an Other, in the way a non-human or animal might be (though we do autopsy each other, don’t we?), a paradoxical relation mirrored in how the ET recognizes homo sapiens as their analogue on earth (why not whales or bees?), while, at the same time, treating us as we treat animals (abducting and studying us). I fail to see, however, how this very thought-provoking relation can be described as scape goating: what are the ETs sacrificed for and how does it free us of that sin?
My brain that woke at 3h30 this morning can’t quite understand “The scapegoating of ET puts our technomimesis on hold and neutralizes the very real violence it foreshadows.” Nor how this scapegoating makes the mythos genuinely democratic…though it is and is not “self-perpetuating”, i.e., on one agent or small set of agents steers the myth; it is collective, in that way, but there are imbalances of creative license, relative to access to the means of publication.
“how the ET recognizes homo sapiens as their analogue on earth (why not whales or bees?), while, at the same time, treating us as we treat animals (abducting and studying us). I fail to see, however, how this very thought-provoking relation can be described as scape goating: what are the ETs sacrificed for and how does it free us of that sin?”
the sacrifice of the anthropomorphic super-tekhnik ET (be it Prometheus or some latter-day infantilized vulgarisation; see the latest offering in the Avengers series) is the symbolic, collective (ironized as the “genuinely democratic” in my previous comment) expurgation of the mimetic competition and the violent cataclysm it promises (typically embodied by the nuclear holocaust even today). Of course any sacrifice only temporarily puts on hold the inevitable confrontation which inevitably returns by other means, because “violence begets violence”. So it doesn’t free us from the sin (of mutually assured destruction) but it is an attempt to do something (even if only in the realm of imagination; which after all can, and often has, serious material consequences) to stem the tide of social breakdown and unhindered violence.
Perhaps I’m steering too far off with this tangent, but I think there is something to be said for how the ET is an almost (if not wholly) religious concept that goes beyond the cliches of the modern UFO mythos; one that is both exploited by the culture industry (traditional and new media alike) and expressive of our most fundamental social dynamo: violence and the mimetic process that fuels it (which predates capitalism, flying machines and the commodity form).
The science-fictional ETs you cite are not exactly sacrificed by a human collective (which isn’t exactly democratic, either, necessarily): the gods punish Prometheus and various invaders are defeated by ingenuity, bravery, or good luck.–“Competition” is always the opponent playing the same game, just another team, which segues nicely with my thesis that the ET is merely (“mirrorly”) ourselves, just distorted by a process of ostranenie whose workings remain for me now occluded–That ET possesses a religious dimension is very well taken: the first ET was a tall, blond Venusian named Orthon, who brought a message of peace (he’s the model of Klaatu), and much more can be said in this regard: Diane Pasulka’s _American Cosmic_ (OUP!) picks up this thread, a volume I hope to review, soon–Some clarity might be won if the patently science-fictional ET is distinguished from those beings actually reported as having been encountered, not that there’s not some intersection(!).
I see TTSA (with its rock star and bevy of former government “spooks”) as an attempt to resuscitate a dying interest in UFOs. Despite exploiting revenue-desperate high profile media sources, TTSA itself has so far failed generate much excitement outside the community of established UFO believers.
“Unidentified” was a ratings flop, especially among the all-important 18-34 age group (the target audience for sponsors). Millennials have little interest in UFOs, even when Tom DeLonge is attached to them. They’re too obsessed with gaming and comic book superheroes to pay them much mind.
Want proof? Just attend Comic Con or any regional gamer convention and note the size and age of the crowds. Then go to a UFO convention and note the age of the relative handful of attendees.
TTSA’s latest SEC filing notes that it’s searching to replace it’s rock star CEO. Well, he failed to draw in a new generation of believers so it’s now likely going to Plan B.
I suspect the intelligence agencies to be behind the creation of TTSA (and they ingeniously funded it through the private sector to make it look legit to civilians). The belief in UFOs (even though it has never been universal or even widespread) likely has provided a convenient cover for a variety of classified operations since the 1950s.
Now we have a generation that shrugs off a witnessed unknown as a new type of drone and doesn’t give it a second thought. In many ways, this generation is too technologically sophisticated to believe in UFOs as alien spacecraft. UFOs might even be fading as entertainment for Millennials. Note that recent blockbuster movies have been based on electronic games and comic books.
TTSA is one attempt to breathe new life into the once-useful UFO myth. If it fails to do so, TTSA will fade away. And another attempt using a different model will follow.
So, we seem to agree that TTSA is as much a business venture, as anything else, I think. I remain skeptical if not unpersuaded by hypotheses concerning involvement by intelligence agencies, though given American history since 1947 (the creation of the CIA), it’s surely within the realm of possibility. It’s my impression, though, that “belief in UFOs” has been fairly consistent, around 50% of those polled, in the developed world since 1947. Now, it seems to me that what I was fumbling at trying to articulate in this post was how the phenomenon is as much a media phenomenon as a (putatively) physical or “superphysical” one, subject to the conditions of “hyperreality” (though I need to do some more reading and thinking before I lay my money down on that!). This aspect at least dovetails nicely into the more cultural / sociopolitical dimension of the matter that ultimately interests me more.
I don’t have faith in most polls, especially those where people are queried about their belief in UFOs. My gut tells me that the only time poll respondents consciously consider whatever they’re being asked about is when confronted with answering a question about it. After that the subject fades back into the background noise from whence it came.
UFOs serve most importantly as a social networking device for a relatively small number of hard-core believers (a community akin to a religious community). They’ve also served as a convenient cover for military/intelligence operations (I believe it’s a bit naive to deny this possibility); an exploitable meme for the entertainment and publishing industries; and a cottage industry providing a bit of supplemental income for self-styled “researchers”, paid subscriber- and/or ad-supported podcasters, ad-supported bloggers and You Tubers; small conference/meeting organizers; etc.
However, the number of people who actively engage with the UFO topic on a frequent and regular basis (go beyond merely occasionally watching a video clip, listening to a sound bite, or scanning an article) represents a small percentage of the US population.
Essentially, thee and me are at or near the apex of a very narrow UFO interest/obsession bell curve, and the outliers greatly outnumber us.
I surely share much of your misgivings concerning polls; when examined closely, they often seem to betray the weaknesses you remark. And you give a nice, succinct description of the, kinda, sociology of the UFO: the comparison to the a religious community was in fact the intuition that led to my earlier sociological forays. But I would also remark that the sociocultural power of the UFO is precisely that most folks don’t think about it, that it is both ubiquitous and marginal, and, if psychoanalysis teaches us anything, it’s precisely that such semi-conscious or downright unconscious ideas have all the more power precisely because of their apparent unimportance to the centre of our attention…
Thanks for this blog postt