As I observed in the last Sightings post, ufology as that myth-of-things-seen-in the-skies, despite apparent, dramatic developments (novelties), seems to orbit in an eternal-recurrence-of-the-same, which is characteristic of myth as such; myth posits an eternal (ever recurring) order…. That being said, some recent developments caught my attention.
The Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts (headed by Avi Loeb) recently named Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo as Research Affiliates. (I assume these two names and their respective place in recent ufology are not unfamiliar.) I’ve elaborated a number of critiques of the thinking underwriting Loeb’s views concerning extraterrestrial technological artifacts (the most developed can be read here). However ideologically invested Loeb’s ideas, their scientific value remains an open question, depending on Project Galileo’s ultimate—empirical—findings. But it’s precisely the project’s scientific reputation that is thrown into question by its affiliation with Mellon and Elizondo, given their respective backgrounds in intelligence and their overt statements and innuendos concerning UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). Given Mellon’s and Elizondo’s enthusiastic participation in the drama of “Disclosure”, the scientifically-minded might be excused for wondering just how much of value the two can bring to, e.g., “assessing the societal implications of the data, if any extraterrestrial technological signatures or artifacts are discovered.” One’s tempted to imagine that once History’s The Secret of Skin Walker Ranch has run its inevitable course it might not be replaced by a new reality series, The Galileo Project….
The appointment of Mellon and Elizondo to a research project searching for artifacts of extraterrestrial technology underlines, again, the near hegemony a certain thinking about extraterrestrial life (and, by extension and most importantly, life on earth) holds in both the popular and more specialized imaginations, e.g., that of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers. Corey S. Powell’s Aeon article “The search for alien tech” reveals both in how SETI research has recently expanded in the wake of the discovery of exoplanets and most acutely in his own reflexive (unconscious) rhetoric just how strong the grip of this thinking is.
Powell describes how “each age has featured its own version [of] yearning for contact with life from beyond, always anchored to the technological themes of the day”. Roughly in the latter half of last century SETI was essentially the search for a demonstrably alien, artificial signal somewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, whether visible (e.g., laser) or invisible (e.g., radio). However, with the discovery of how to detect and study exoplanets, the search was able to broaden its horizon to include the chemical fingerprints of life and technology, bio- and technosignatures. These latter include, for example, the specific light reflected from solar panels, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, “highly versatile compounds that are used as solvents, refrigerants, foaming agents and aerosol propellants”), or “nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of combustion or high-temperature manufacturing,” namely, the kinds of technosignatures human activity leaves in earth’s atmosphere. However, as Powell remarks “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all.” The search for technosignatures, therefore, expands to include “mechanical technosignatures”, such as a Dyson Sphere, or the kinds of artifacts The Galileo Project is on the hunt for.
There is an irony, however, in, on the one hand, admitting that “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all” and, on the other, the tellingly offhand comparison Powell makes discussing technosignatures:
We spew pollutants, belch factory heat during the day, and light up our cities at night. We can’t help it, any more than bacteria can help emitting methane. By extension, any advanced aliens could be expected to visibly alter their planet as an inevitable byproduct of creating a manufactured, industrial civilization.
Powell’s comparison levels the difference between the waste products of an organism’s metabolism and those of social, techno-industrial processes, human or alien, whose societies are thereby (if not therefore) imagined (if not thought) to be organisms writ large. Powell’s rhetoric here (con)fuses the natural and the social, natural history and history proper (Adorno’s critique of the distinction notwithstanding).
Powell’s rhetoric is part-and-parcel with that thinking that governs SETI in general and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs, the (Platonic) idea that life is not shaped only by biology but by some teleology that launches it on a vector to develop the kind of intelligence homo sapiens imagines it possesses, which, in turn, necessarily expresses itself as tool-use and technological development along the lines laid out by “First World” historians (who imagine that the world’s present-day “advanced” societies represent a goal or end of history…). Astrobiologist Jason Wright et al. keep strange company when they imagine alien technology millions or billions of years old (and presumably as much in advance of our own); Maitreya Raël tells us, too, that his Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us….
More gravely is how this confusion of natural history and history proper evacuates the possibility of even thinking of self-directed social change (societies are ultimately as mindlessly instinctual as colonies of bacteria) and thereby serves a politically “conservative”, reactionary function. David Wengrow makes a not unrelated point with regard to how reigning, inherited narratives of cultural development work as myths (there’s that word again) to drain away the potential for even imagining alternate futures or change. Wengrow rehearses this restraining view of human history as follows:
We could live in societies of equals, this story goes, when we were few, our lives and needs simple. In this view, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Big means complex, which involves hierarchy, exploitation and the competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we are left to draw the obvious dismal conclusions. There is no sense fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our grow-or-die economy, what hope do we really have of making progress? [my emphasis]
Or, as Fredric Jameson so memorably put it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Happily, as Wengrow points out and explains “nothing about this familiar conception of human history is actually true.”
The myth that possesses the imagination of believers in or speculators about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations is as scientifically and philosophically problematic as it is socially consequential. On the one hand, we don’t even know how life appeared on earth, but what we do know, however, is that its evolution has been a precarious, chance-ridden, unpredictable process. On the other, the story of human culture and society is even more aleatoric and varied, underwritten by what Wengrow terms “the spark of political creativity” or philosophers, more generally, “freedom”. Accounts of life, “intelligence”, “development”, or “progress” that merely posit the (self-serving) self-understanding of one culture on earth as the outcome of some natural, necessary, universal process serve to only reify, naturalize and entrench, the social relations of that culture, now at a moment when its unnaturalness, borne out by the daily mounting evidence of its unsustainability (to put it in the most “objective” terms), is most in need of unmasking.