What do UFOs have to do with it?

I’ve noticed recently how those sincerely interested in the UFO mystery can at the same time dismiss the idea that the phenomenon might possess a more general import. Here and elsewhere I’ve read comments such as, “the UFO culture is now purely entertainment,” “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,” and that the “real UFO conspiracy [is] why the UFOs have become a joke and such an embarrassing subject in ‘serious’ conversation,” all in stark contrast to the unabashed and breathless enthusiasm of those fascinated by the idea of  Disclosure (that at least one of the world’s governments has been in contact with extraterrestrials (ETs) for decades and has been gifted or back-engineered their technology).

“The UFO topic” that that “small percentage” of the population engages with is approximated by, for example, recent stories concerning U.S. Navy encounters with apparently anomalous aeroforms and History’s latest series Project Blue Book and Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation. As has been the case since Donald Keyhoe wrote his books, in this arena the UFO is invariably imagined to be either an extraterrestrial spaceship or maybe a domestic or foreign aeronautical breakthrough, even for those not unacquainted with Jacques Vallée’s Magonians, John Keel’s ultraterrestrials, or even Mac Tonnies’ crypoterrestrials, or more recent speculations concerning other dimensions and times. The demographic represented by this “small percentage” is imaginably very slight (though one does wonder just what empirical research would in fact show).

On the other hand, since 1947, consistently roughly half the population in North America and Europe believe “flying saucers are real” (however seriously), and, over the same time, the UFO and the ufonauts have invaded and colonized popular culture, so that the UFO as a cultural phenomenon now has a higher brand recognition than, say, Odysseus and Ulysses. It is precisely this liminal ubiquity—being both everywhere but hardly at the centre of attention—that empowers the UFO and ET to express something of, and thereby illuminate, if not overtly influence, the culture at large.

The UFO-as-sign (as a vehicle of meaning) functions both factually and fictionally, regardless of whatever reality the UFO might ultimately turn out to possess. As something taken as real, it has clearly reflected the anxieties of the times. Jung, as is well-known, argued the flying saucer functioned as a compensatory mechanism for the anxieties provoked by the Cold War. On one hand, its circular, mandala shape symbolized the unity absent from a sundered world, while, on another, its seeming a spaceship from a technically-advanced society made it a deus ex machina, an otherworldy, salvific intervention into what seemed a perilous, humanly insoluble crisis. His insight was confirmed by the pacifist messages delivered by the Space Brothers of Adamski and the other Contactees of the 1950s. Decades later, with advances in reproductive technologies, such as the Human Genome Project, the potential for human cloning, and in vitro fertilization, little wonder the hypnotically-induced fantasies of women who believed they’d been abducted by aliens should express the anxieties proper to their time and gender, or that abductees in general sometimes claimed they were shown images of global, often ecological, catastrophe by their abductors just at the time ecological consciousness was dawning toward the glaring near-noon zenith it has reached today.

Given the spontaneous significance attributed to “the visionary rumour” of the UFO and ET contact, it should come as little surprise, likewise, that the creative imagination should find in it an endlessly fecund figurative resonance. Cinema (as Robbie Graham would likely agree) and to a lesser extent television perhaps more than any other media have made the most of this material, as, for example, a metaphor for race (in the films The Brother from Another Planet, Alien Nation, or District 9), global warming (The Arrival), mass extinction (The X-Files episode “Fearful Symmetry”), and the insatiable rapaciousness of capitalism (Independence Day).

For example, the remake of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still twists together the anxious and the hopeful. On the one hand, the alien Klaatu is sent to earth to oversee the destruction of every trace of humankind and its civilization that are rendering the planet uninhabitable for complex life; however, nonhuman, animal organisms are taken up by spherical craft that serve as arks to preserve them from the cleansing process so they may be reintroduced after its completion. Fortunately, Klaatu is persuaded to avert the eradication of human life and, instead, brings to a standstill the technology whose destructive effects brought about the crisis. (The credits roll too soon, though: the results of a global cessation of mechanical technology would doubtless prove catastrophic, resulting in, among other things, mass starvation, with the paralysis of transportation, food processing, and agriculture, a far more cruel, drawn-out process of eradication than the one initially proposed by Klaatu’s civilization!).

The ecological focus and critique of “development” are clear; the imagined solutions, however, are, ironically, hopeless:  humankind itself is incapable of collective action to avert ecological destruction; it, therefore, stands in need of an external, overpowering intervention, whose only proposed solutions are the elimination of homo sapiens (in line with the biocentric ideology of EarthFirst! or the more recent philosophy of anti-natalism) or of the technologies of the so-called developed world. The film’s solutions to our very real problem are less acceptable than the premise of the film as a whole, framing the urgent crisis at its heart as insoluble, inspiring either a resigned fatalism, or, more charitably, a reflective search for alternatives to the unacceptable dilemma posed by the film itself.

The cinematic versions of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and 2010:  The Year We Make Contact develop the theme of the deus ex machina, but along a slightly different trajectory. Both are stories about the guided development (mental or spiritual if not morphological) of anthropomorphic life, from the proto-, to the human, to the meta- or hyperhuman. The genius for tool-use, from a bone-as-club to interplanetary spacecraft and AI, is sparked in the genus Homo by an extraterrestrial agent, represented by an enigmatic, black monolith. One such monolith discovered on the moon, prompts an exploratory expedition to Jupiter, where astronaut Dave Bowman is “evolved” to a superhuman being. In the sequel, a subsequent expedition to discover what happened to the first sets in motion the transformation of Jupiter and its moons into a miniature solar system, a supplementary space for human habitation and resource extraction intended to ease tensions on an overcrowded earth that narrowly escapes nuclear war.

In this fictional universe, the Promethean spirit of technological ingenuity (and power) is posited as a kind of divine spark. Striking it in the protohuman creates a being in the image of the mysterious makers of the black monolith, who guide and shape humankind to ever higher technological achievement and biological/spiritual development ultimately, one might suppose, with the goal of having us attaining their level. It is difficult not to detect a value system underwriting this narrative. Ironically, technological sophistication (e.g., the capacity to invent and build weapons of mass destruction) is not accompanied by a moral or social sense equal to governing the species-suicidal potential of our technical know-how, so, otherworldly intervention is needed. Two problems present themselves. First, if technological savvy is not accompanied by the collective intelligence necessary to control it, then how did the makers of the black monoliths survive this impasse? Secondly, the solution they provide is stop-gap: the essential problem of infinite growth in a finite environment that characterizes the economic system of capitalism, whose advent underwrote the Industrial Revolution, is only temporarily solved by adding more Lebensraum and exploitable resources. The solution to earth’s problems in 2010 seem in hindsight a metaphor for the planned exploration and resource extraction within the solar system and the asteroid belt, the setting for the television series The Expanse and an important assumption in Aaron Bastani’s manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In this case, the imagined solutions to our real problems amount to either faith (indistinguishable from the Christian’s that all works out in God’s plan for humankind) and/or more of the (doomed) same.

In both fact and fiction, then, the UFO and ET appear within the horizon of, and expressing, the existential crises of our time, solving by means of their superiour technology the dire problems the development and deployment of our own have brought to pass. The human being, moreover, plays a singular, special role:  the ufonauts spontaneously recognize homo sapiens as their earthly counterpart among all the other species of life on earth, because of a shared Promethean character, due either to their having implanted it in us or to its being natural to intelligent life:  intelligence implies tool-use, which is merely nascent technology. In the real world, even in arguments offered for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the mere fact of an existing, vastly more advanced technological civilization is evidence that ours can navigate the impasse that threatens to destroy our own, either by following their example or, as in the cinematic examples above, through their direct intervention.

It is precisely, however, the way ET mirrors ourselves, is a projection of ourselves, that gives the game away and reveals an important, if not the primary way, the UFO mythology works in society at large. As I have argued repeatedly and at length here and elsewhere, positing anthropomorphic intelligence, tool-use and technology as natural (universal) propensities to life-as-such is to treat as universal one very geographically and historically local and contingent social formation, namely that of the so-called “First” or “developed world”. This megalomaniacal projection of the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population of one form of life on earth finds a mythical legitimation in, for example, the book of Genesis wherein God creates Man in His own image and a science-fictional one in the universe of 2001 and 2010 wherein an extraterrestrial agent plays both a Promethean and parental role. In either case the destiny of humankind is imagined to be fated, necessary, and, divinely or otherwise, ordained.

The solutions to humanity’s problems proposed in both The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2010 drive this point home all the harder. Either humanity and all traces of it need disappear, or its technology must cease operating, or it must stay the course. None of these are workable. This apparent impasse however results from the assumed inalterability of the status quo:  the unspoken (because unspeakable) solution is social change. As Fredric Jameson put it so well:  “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In its affirmation of existing society, in both its factual and fictive forms the UFO-as-a-sign functions ideologically, maintaining the status quo by occluding the possibility of imagining that things might be otherwise.

Ironically, cinematic pop culture performed this ideology critique already in 1988, in John Carpenter’s They Live!. In this film, the earth has already been colonized by a malevolent alien race that maintains its power by means of a technology that creates an illusory world, that of North America in the late twentieth century. The protagonist has his eyes opened to this reality when he dons a pair of sun glasses with the power to reveal the subliminal messages of advertising and entertainment, etc. that keep humanity in its virtual chains. The deliciousness of this plot is double: the capitalist ruling class is shown “in reality” to be a repulsive, cowardly alien race, thereby inverting the motif of the ET-as-benevolent-saviour in Jung, the Contactees, and 2001 and 2010.

[Interested parties are invited to hear philosopher Slavoj Žižek present his reading of They Live! as ideology critique in his own, inimitable manner!]

Because the UFO mythology is both ubiquitous and liminal, the actual percentage of the population that might admit to consuming either documentary or fictional UFO material is beside the point. The myth is “in the air”, vaguely familiar to everyone, but hardly considered by anyone, a status that enables it to function just below and at the edges of conscious thought. When it does intrude on consciousness, as either fact or fiction, the UFO-as-sign mirrors back to us after its fashion not an Otherness but an insidious Identity. It signifies in this way through no fault of its own; a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it, and, in this case, that is the world capitalism and technology, industrial or otherwise, have made. That the UFO should appear in this way, enlisted in the maintenance of an ecocidal order, is a crime against humanity in particular and life in general, that something that should be out of this world and therefore throwing that world into relief, estranging it through difference, revealing it in all its contingency and alterability, becomes something pitifully, pathetically human, all-too-human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “What do UFOs have to do with it?

  1. positing anthropomorphic intelligence, tool-use and technology as natural (universal) propensities to life-as-such is to treat as universal one very geographically and historically local and contingent social formation, namely that of the so-called “First” or “developed world”. This megalomaniacal projection of the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population of one form of life on earth finds a mythical legitimation in, for example, the book of Genesis wherein God creates Man in His own image and a science-fictional one in the universe of 2001 and 2010 wherein an extraterrestrial agent plays both a Promethean and parental role. In either case the destiny of humankind is imagined to be fated, necessary, and, divinely or otherwise, ordained.

    Leaving aside the fact that 2001 is a pop culture pastiche (albeit not one without artistic merit) of technogonic myths like the biblical one, I don’t think the latter evince any “megalomaniacal” superiority complex (at least not the kind that is specific to the “first”/Western world. Rather they obscure (as all myths ultimately do) organically – and not conspiratorially – the nasty, violent rest-of-the-iceberg of the socializing process. The promethean figure is as much a scapegoat figure (notably in the Bible) as it is a techne-bestowing father figure. And this is true across human cultures, not just “first world” ones.
    Technology comes from the sky not because of some Western anthropocentric monomania, it comes from the sky (from Papua New Guinea to the Amazonian rainforest) because technology is violence and nobody can ever control violence. The sky is “not us”, the abstract arbiter that can be supplicated to keep the violence at bay, and should that fail in the end (as it tends to do), the “not us” that will die (be killed) in a moment of sacrificial crisis, when the cataclysmic chaos of fractal-like division and perma-violence subsumes our precarious social balancing act, so that we may find “us” again — the true, collective “us” and not the “lonely crowd” of Debordian spectacle — and so, go on living.
    I see the sky lord in his retro-futuristic saucer thingie as an image of fear, fear of the violence that is to come because of actually existing human technology (and in a broader sense because of society itself), not (or at the very least, not just) a hubristic affirmation of Western-style anthropocentrism.

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    1. My purpose in referring to Genesis is to underline its role (“legitimation”) in giving to human kind a special place in Creation, one divinely ordained, protected, and guided. The role of the makers of the black monoliths seems analogous, though they can be said only to have given Man his (Promethean) soul, not his total being. Not all societies have a creation myth that makes Man the special child of God; some peoples in the Amazon never get thrown out of the Garden!

      The megalomonomaniacal projection I speak of is nursed in the cradle of that special dispensation, but is found in the way that SETI, for example, is little more than a search for ourselves off world. This unwarranted generalization, that intelligence is only human intelligence, that intelligence is technological in the way one segment of the human population for a sliver of history has been is an unwarranted inflation (that suppresses the role capitalism has played in that development, as I note with regards to the Industrial Revolution; why does technology change (let alone “develop”)? One answer: investment…).

      I think we agree re the organic vs conspiratorial character of myth here: I point to its spontaneity, and abjure its collaboration with the existing order, because it can’t help but be schematized by the matrix within which it comes to be. The theory of ideology is hardly conspiratorial…Marxism no conspiracy theory.

      Where our ways of thinking part (which in no way is to judge or evaluate your speculations) is the strict concreteness of mine: I wince at the thought of calling Prometheus a scape-goat, confusing the legacies of Olympus and Sinai; I restrict the extension of ‘technology’ to that thinking of the modern era that frames all beings as raw material (or “standing reserve”, or potential commodity), i.e., as one arising within European capitalism. Even “myth” here must be restricted in its use, though I don’t dare try to define it, as its semi-articulate sense is both useful and perilous. So I resist absolutely any talk that would extend to humans of all times and places, which, at the very least runs the risk of becoming ideological in the sense that I argue the UFO is, here, if not downright mythical in its own right!

      I for one, don’t claim technology comes from the sky, exactly: in the stories I cite, what is technological in human beings is either implanted in them (2001) or something “natural to intelligent life in the universe” (which is the primary ideological occlusion I want to finger, here). Here, the Sky People most emphatically ARE US, which is the ground of our mutual recognition, not to mention their disappointing anthropomorphism!

      The aspect of fear that you perceive is likely another ingredient we might agree on after some discussion. Offhand, one could point to the UFO as a religiously sublime object (inspiring awe and terror, but in a numinous rather than aesthetic manner); as something that in fact is reported as terrifying and in fiction is the stuff of horror, too. I don’t go there, admittedly.

      But my purpose was to concretely (in a Marxian sense) argue for an important (ideological) function for the UFO as a radically modern phenomenon, coming into view in a modern if not postmodern context (after 1945), whose import is independent of how many people give it conscious thought and even regardless of the content of those thoughts, as the analysis here operates within the horizon of the death of the Subject, or at least at a level where the individual is of no account.

      Thanks for the bracing, and always welcome, intervention!

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      1. I am not going to attempt a point-by-point reply because I think this is likely not the place for that, but “a couple” of points I find hard to resist:

        ——Where our ways of thinking part (which in no way is to judge or evaluate your speculations) is the strict concreteness of mine: I wince at the thought of calling Prometheus a scape-goat, confusing the legacies of Olympus and Sinai;—-

        There is no confusion here, and the “scapegoat mechanism” (despite the word’s cultural baggage) is something that is plainly manifest in a variety of myths and rituals that have nothing to do with ancient Judaism. This is an uncontroversial argument that has been hashed and rehashed from Levy-Strauss through to Girard, and more recently by David Dawson (whose Flesh Becomes Word sums up the various scapegoatologies).

        ——I restrict the extension of ‘technology’ to that thinking of the modern era that frames all beings as raw material (or “standing reserve”, or potential commodity), i.e., as one arising within European capitalism——

        That seems like a choice informed by your interpretation of European capitalism, which technology (even the word itself) patently predates.
        Yes, we can speak of a “technological capitalism” but it seems blinkered – not to say ideological, because I know you wouldn’t stoop that low 😉 – to restrict the concept itself (and its sociohistorical trajectory) to the Industrial Revolution——Gas chambers ——Cyber age econtinuum. I find nothing particularly concrete in waving off a more holistic, if more problematic, interpretation of the “sky man” myth based on a grantedly incomplete but verifiable set of anthropological examples (I am aware that not all cosmogonies include a “fall from grace” component) in favour of a neat structuralist fable where capitalism is the prima causa instead of “the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population” if I may paraphrase from above?

        Not that “the risk of becoming ideological in the sense that I argue the UFO is … if not downright mythical” can be averted — and here I think is where we perhaps disagree the most. You may have faith in your ability to soar above the myth-engendering mindscape on the wings of your concrete marxian critique (and it’s not to say that it won’t allow you an interesting vantage), but I don’t think we can escape it no matter what we do. The “broader picture” is still a picture of a picture and it has characters and teachings and values just like the basest of dualistic ideologies. But this is another discussion…

        ——in the stories I cite, what is technological in human beings is either implanted in them (2001) or something “natural to intelligent life in the universe” (which is the primary ideological occlusion I want to finger, here). Here, the Sky People most emphatically ARE US, which is the ground of our mutual recognition,——

        See above. Of course they’re us (hence the quotes), how could anything we ideate not be? At the risk of veering into Pythonesque territory, the “not us” is also “us” regardless of how much tormented pining for the mysterious, inconceivable “opposite” went (and goes) into it. I’m sure that doesn’t quite make sense, but I just want to clarify that I don’t think you’re arguing against anything I’ve said here.

        ——argue for an important (ideological) function for the UFO as a radically modern phenomenon, coming into view in a modern if not postmodern context (after 1945), whose import is independent of how many people give it conscious thought and even regardless of the content of those thoughts——

        I respect that, even though I think it risks turning it into a bit of a poststructuralist topiary to frame (corset?) it that way. But I’ve seen plenty of evidence so far that you often do go beyond the confines of “theory” which I suppose makes you a very naughty boy …in a Marxian sense.

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      2. Many of my positions (which are always local and provisional) are informed by the kind of historicism developed in German thought (Marx, Dilthey, Heidegger, Adorno, Gadamer, Jauss…). For this reason, I resist universalizing theories such as those of Levi-Strauss, Girard, Jung, Campbell, and others of like mind, and the quasi-anthropological extension of a concept of technology to denote everything from tool-use to a wedge, pulley, or inclined plane; my sense of technology here is a rough-and-ready application of Heidegger’s positions informed by a no less rough-and-ready heretical “Marxianism” (i.e., Western counter-revolutionary Critical Theory). The monstrous hybrid of philosophical hermeneutics, Critical Theory, late Marxianism, and even later German Idealism, all mitigate against an anthropological presuppositions. Because this rough-and-ready position (hardly a theory) is precisely _not_ a theory, and is at all points informed by a _hermeneutic_ stance (let alone a more sophisticated Marxian one), it doesn’t claim to speak from some Archimedean point outside of history or the social relations of the present moment. The work here is in equal parts “critical” and “creative” (I am after all providing a _reading_ of a myth as part of a larger project to poetically articulate that myth for myself!).

        My writing about an “the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population” is primarily rhetorical, to undercut the premiss that all life somehow has as its end “intelligence” (of an anthropomorphic variety, and even _that_ never escapes culture let alone _class_), which tends to “technology”: that some human beings now inhabit a “developed” world is not the result of a universal “natural” tendency (as the thinking behind SETI might have it and the thinking that underwrites seeing UFOs as spaceships, the same thinking that underwrites ranking “technologies” as more or less “advanced”) but of _investment_ and class interest….

        As to the radical modernity of the myth (here I would staunchly resist any tendency to see it as a transformation or translation of earlier, premodern (e.g., Medieval Christian) stories), on the one hand, I follow Jung’s cogent insight it functions relative to its time and along the lines I’ve set out (though that account is limited, e.g., matters in the jungles of Brazil or the Congo might probably call for a more locally-nuanced study), while, on the other, I’m working on a kind of Proppian/narratological table of analogues between alien abductions, faery abductions, near death experiences, etc. Which is to say, _creatively_ the work can and will draw on vaguely structuralist gestures, and even less rigorous insights into historical parallels by the likes of Jacques Vallee. From a theoretical stance, I’m critical of such moves; from a creative stance, their articulation has a rhetorical / aesthetic function.

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