The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

If William Murphy over at The Anomalist found my post on Robbie Graham’s take on the hyperreality of the UFO “brainy”, I can only shake my head over what he or the like-minded will make of this one…

A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.

Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.

The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.

The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that

…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….

I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.

Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.


4 thoughts on “The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

  1. Can’t help but sing the Porpoise Song by Carol King:
    (The ego) sings of castles
    And kings and things that go
    With a life of style

    Wanting to feel
    To know what is real
    Living is a, is a lie

    The porpoise is waiting
    Goodbye, goodbye, etc., (Thanks for all the fish)


  2. Pardon me for being blunt, but in real terms our ability to manipulate
    the raw materials of the planet and possibly affect its destruction or
    attempted salvation would indeed fit the dictionary definition many
    have of godhood, no ??? Or is that too anthropocentric of me ?


    1. Dare_Devil, thanks for commenting–not at all bluntly! (And quite thought-provoking (uh-oh…)).

      I don’t quite follow how our ability to manipulate nature’s raw materials might be thought divine. Maybe you’re thinking of splitting the atom or maybe even ultimately accessing zero-point energy (if that latter is not pure science fiction)?

      Nor are we capable of destroying or saving the planet, not even its biosphere, though we do seem capable of bringing about a mass extinction. But even nature her/itself has does _that_ (and has at least six times in the past), so there’s nothing supernatural or divine at work, there. One could argue humankind are behaving more like a bacterium in a petri dish than a god or God.

      But where you have surely put your finger on something is the Promethean aspect of our whole dilemma. On the one hand, we have secured a perverse mastery over nature (that’s why Nature could appear as beautiful rather than only threatening in the late 18th century), such that consciously or otherwise we are capable of unprecedented destruction, or, as you point out, good; _Utopia or Oblivion_ is a book by Buckminster Fuller and it’s precisely the utopian potential of modern society that leverages my (and Critical Theory’s) critique. On the other hand, our all-too-human inability either to understand or control these powers (we’re not godly enough for our powers) prompted one (in)famous German philosopher to reflect “only a god can save us.”

      So our ideas of the divine come into play at every point, but only to contrast all the more sharply the difference between our material power and wisdom. Or so it seems to me.

      Thanks for the provocative observation.


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