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.

4 thoughts on “Piping in on Hanks and Bullard on the Myth and Mystery of UFOs

  1. I keep stumbling on how to understand the difference between analyzing UFO narratives in generic terms as one would a Greek myth or an Irish folktale on one hand and, on the other, evaluating them as truth claims, i.e. as attempts to describe something disturbingly unusual that nevertheless “actually happened.” I haven’t read Bullard’s book in a while but I recall being fairly satisfied with his efforts to sort this out. I especially appreciated his conclusion that once one has read through the layers of textual/generic conventions in which UFO reports inevitably come to be embedded, there is still (often) some kind of irreducible Real in the event that can’t be conventionally explained (or explained away), the level of real “Mystery” in the title of his book. Can you share what if any are your issues with Bullard’s approach to this, what in my own shorthand I call the ontological problem? I have been frustrated by the tendency in other authors (e.g. Halperin) to suppress the ontological problem by reading UFO “narratives” in strictly literary or socio-psychological terms. While these mythological or sociological readings are useful for understanding how the Phenomenon circulates in various social networks, how they become material for various shared meanings and communal solidarity, I think there’s something suspiciously defensive about them; ultimately they seem to me (quite often) to be strategies for distancing the discourse from the potentially disruptive effects of such confrontations with the Real. How do you see your own method in the light of this criticism I’m laying out here (admittedly somewhat awkwardly)?


  2. nodesplitter, you surely put your finger on a critical and stubbornly irresolvable issue! I have remarked and probed it quite consistently here, but make no attempt to solve the problem. On the one hand, my personal involvement is first creative (poetic) and cultural critical. Ironically, as I’ve argued elsewhere here, seeking to grasp the reality of the phenomenon we come up empty-handed, while surrendering that quest our cups runneth over; hence, research into the sociology. psychology, etc. of the mythology is a rich field, while the forensic and physical investigation is very difficult if not fruitless. Despite decades of investigation from the forensic/physical angle, the concrete content of the reality of the phenomenon is that it is _a mystery_, which, again, is a cultural, rather than a physical, content. On another hand, I lack the training in forensics and the physical sciences to engage in a serious way with the “ontological” question, and I’m sure you’re aware how tiresome the endless debates among the amateurs can be! Whatever the ultimate truth of the physical phenomenon (and I’m with Vallee in believing there is a provocative, puzzling physical kernel) it’s _not_ what, e.g., Avi Loeb, believes it to be, so we’re back at the interpretation of the phenomenon, the mythology! I trust this answers the challenge of your query.


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