Just what’s up at the Skunkworks (Skunkworksblog, that is)?

The fourth anniversary of this blog came and went last 22 February. I can, I think, be forgiven for not marking the occasion: here, in Montreal, the pandemic dragged on; the nation’s capital was occupied by a Canadian version of insurrectionists (so Canadian, in fact, they couldn’t recognize themselves as insurrectionists); and Russia was gearing up for that invasion of Ukraine it launched before the end of the month.

What prompts today’s clarifications, though, is the surprising and not unwelcome interest in my recent commentaries on some of the plenary sessions delivered at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas: Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address (here) and those of Whitley Strieber and Diana Pasulka.

On the one hand, sckepticks (my coinage) of the UFO phenomenon take quickly and enthusiastically to those remarks of mine that appear to harmonize with their dismissal of the whole matter: my notice of Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity: The Best Kept Secret or my criticisms of aspects of the talks, above, usually their philological and scholarly lapses. Believers in the reality of the phenomenon, on the other hand, see me as a skeptic, too. Both, I claim, are mistaken, as would any believer who therefore takes it I side with them. Indeed, I would be especially disappointed if Kripal, Vallée, Strieber, or Pasulka reading my remarks (not for a moment that I imagine they have or do) took it I was crankily trolling them. And I am the first to admit that such confusion is a fault both the way my own interests wander and the relative subtlety of the more general stance I take here.

I started this blog in 2018 as a way of keeping myself honest. Since 1994 I’d been at work on an impossibly unwieldy project, an epic-length, poetic treatment of the UFO as, in Jung’s words, “a modern myth of things seen in the skies.” (Interested parties need only click on the ‘poems’ category to see some of the tentative results of this project). I had seen in a flash that year how the countless stories of UFOs and their pilots and their interactions with human beings composed a repressed critique of the technoscientific culture of the so-called advanced societies of the earth, a culture that at one and the same time served to revolutionize (scientifically and industrially…) human societies and has brought them to the brink of dissolution if not extinction. Here was a ready-made, generally familiar body of stories (contrast the recognizability of ‘UFO’ with “Prometheus’…) ready for the artist’s use.

In 1999 (I think it was) I presented this insight in the discourse of the sociology of religion at that year’s Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in the form of a paper co-authored with a friend, Dr Susan Palmer, “Presumed Immanent: The Raëlians, UFO Religions, and the Postmodern Condition.” Jaws dropped, the editor of Nova Religio buttonholed me immediately after the session, and the paper has since appeared, first, in that academic journal, then, in university syllabi, textbooks, and most recently The Cambridge Guide to New Religious Movements. Though unposed as such, the question that motivated that paper’s argument was that of the appeal of Raël’s message. The answer is that Raël’s “religion of science” is in its essential presuppositions perfectly harmonious with the ideology of technoscience that governs the world’s advanced societies and inspires the imagination of technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial societies among “UFO people” and SETI scientists, alike.

The tendency of this blog has been to articulate that original insight in an ever more varied and hopefully more profound and thorough-going a manner. The vector of thought here has been critique (as opposed to criticism, fault-finding, mockery, or dismissal, the mode of many UFO skeptics…). ‘Critique’ hearkens back to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant that sought not to answer the metaphysical questions of his day (Does the world have a beginning or is it eternal? Does the soul survive death?, etc.) but to query how it is possible we have the knowledge of nature, morals, and beauty we do. After Kant, especially with the advent and development of historical materialism down to this day, ‘critique’ has come to sometimes denote that analysis of the presuppositions and implications of some position or body of belief or knowledge, in a word, a critique of ideology, here, precisely, that one Jürgen Habermas posited as that of our modern European or Western society, technoscience.

So, for example, my unrelenting critique of the various pronouncements of Avi Loeb should not be taken as claiming these are in any way false, but as attempts to reveal what goes unthought and uninterrogated in these positions. Of course, imaginably, an argument might be made from these critiques about the tenability of his claims, but this is an avenue my thinking does not go down. In the same breath, however, as anyone who has taken the lessons of deconstruction (namely those of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man) to heart will understand, maintaining an airtight opposition between strictly “negative” critique (that is, it does not posit any theses of its own about the facts of the world in opposition to the positions it scrutinizes) and the demand to take some position with regard to the truth of things is ultimately unsupportable. Still, one, in all intellectual honesty and self-surveillance, can try….

In a more general sense, the project here, aside from publicizing the essential poetic project, is to bracket the question of the being (nature or reality) of the phenomenon to better bring into view its meaning. In this regard, the general stance most often taken here is phenomenological, in the sense first given that expression by Edmund Husserl and those who went on to develop his method of “philosophy as a rigorous science”. The dispute over the reality and nature of the phenomenon has proven exhausting and fruitless since 1947, and it’s one I consistently eschew. However, the significance or meaning of the phenomenon is an infinitely rich field of research for the more sociologically-minded, an argument I have made with greater force and at greater length, here.

For all that, I do sometimes criticize, but let it be noted not in the spirit of mere negation or dismissal, but precisely because I take the criticized and the matter under consideration seriously. This ethic is especially so in the case of more scholarly discourses, like those, for example, of Jeffrey Kripal or Diana Pasulka. I don’t demand a cold-blooded, heavy, Nineteenth century Teutonic demeanor (as doubtless some readers here hear me assuming) but I do have certain standards of precision, exactitude, and scholarship I can’t bear to see unfulfilled. Because what’s at stake is a grasp of the character and destiny of techno-industrial society, it is arguable that any lapse in such standards is understandably, at least, irritating. And let’s remember that “irritability” (“Does it react if you poke it with a stick?”) is a sign of life.

So, however gratifying it is to be read and, after a fashion, appreciated, I beg readers to remember that if they think the posts here are engaging in the never-ending for-and-against concerning the reality or nature of UFOs or UAP, likely something subtler and, hopefully, more profound is at work.

3 thoughts on “Just what’s up at the Skunkworks (Skunkworksblog, that is)?

  1. (I’m sorry to post this twice, but I realized that there were a number of errors in the text which made an already verbose reply even worse; please accept this as a replacement, and accept my apologies both for its length, and any remaining grammatical or spelling errors. Thanks!)

    I appreciate your commentary, and it seems you’ve been at it for some time. I, on the other hand, am coming to the party somewhat late. A philosopher of physics and science, technically, by training, I abandoned that discipline for a very long detour in critical theory and the phenomenological tradition. (I studied with Zizek, Balibar, etc. at a Birkbeck summer school for two consecutive years.) I’m a nobody (in scholarly terms), so these prefatory remarks are not meant to say anything more than what my own intellectual trajectory has been.

    Though at the moment I’m bogged down by the most recent catastrophe in Ukraine (and by the predictable rehearsals we see, from some of the cognoscenti on the left, of the failures–both moral and political–of “Western” democracies), I have begun a project on the UFO “phenomenon”. (Btw, I was grating at every misuse of the term ‘phenomena’ — as when speakers at the conference couldn’t decide on the correct number for the term they were using: ‘phenomenon’ or ‘phenomena’.) My intention is to look at the phenomenon somewhat from afar, yet I cannot separate the ‘being’ from the ‘meaning’ as you seem intent on doing with your overall project (if I understand your comments above to be general comments on your whole project — I haven’t yet read you thoroughly enough to know). Indeed, I see that the *reality* of the phenomenon — it’s actual ‘being’ — should and indeed must be something we pursue, if only to establish some relation, however tenuous, to science and its current practices. In this connection, one crucial question that has to be posed, which I am exploring, is “what is a science of UFOs”?

    Your comments on the exasperation of engaging the question of the ‘being’ (the actual reality) of the UFO phenomenon is somewhat puzzling, esp. given: (1) the (more general) history of anomalous phenomena and their (uneasy) reception in existing epistemic paradigms of the day (and there are clearly stages to the entry of an anomaly into an existing epistemology: non-perception, non-recognition; then perception but puzzlement; and so on — this surely deserves a whole analysis on its own, which I am thinking under the heading ‘liminal epistemology’); and (2) the fact that no serious, long-term and concentrated efforts were made to engage with the phenomenon of the UFO given that, very quickly, it was submerged under the unfortunate sea of taboo (something only lifting in the last few years). In other words, to use my jargon, why are we not simply faced with yet another problem in liminal epistemology — in other words, where our primary epistemic framework (science) is challenged by a phenomenon that seems wholly ‘other’ to it, that is: which seems to challenge the very foundations of science itself. This interpretation, btw, does not require any more than a barest accounting of the (observed) facts about which we *are* relatively certain (the anomalous kinematical profiles — the accelerations and velocities — we can deduce from fairly solid evidence). Given the nub of (phenomenologically) secure facts that exist, what motives, then, your insistence that we separate ‘being’ from ‘meaning’? I understand that insisting upon this distinction is, perhaps, endemic to the analytical/interpretive stance you’ve elected to take (you position yourself, interestingly, in the tradition of ‘critique’ going back to Kant, which I myself value); but in this particular (even peculiar) case, why make it? How is it helpful for the project of understanding the phenomenon itself? I guess I am simply uneasy with this ‘being’/’meaning’ distinction…

    Thinking of the suggestions of Vallee (which you rightly try to critique in one of your recent blog posts), it would seem that we have a peculiar (and peculiarly ‘post-modern’?) reading of the distinction between ‘being’ and ‘meaning’: that the meaning *is* the being. Perhaps this is what he is attempting to suggest, by trying to interpret the UFO phenomenon as a “meta-system”? In any case, surely there *is* a ‘being’ there to be known, and one that is like any other ‘being’ in the world: amenable to (some form of) scientific analysis. Surely, given the evidence we have, (at least some of) these objects (whatever they are) are intelligently controlled objects of unknown origin implementing a knowledge of the natural world that simply exceeds our own. And given this, there is a rather straightforward sense of ‘meaning’ imputed here: as intelligently controlled objects, their activity is saturated with an intentionality which we simply cannot (yet) decipher (both in terms of their goals, or, more fundamentally, in terms of the meaning-structure within which these objects are embedded). But of course, I am now departing from the distinction, since I am speaking of this ‘being’/’meaning’ distinction *as it pertains to the objects themselves*, rather than as something that stands in essential relation to us — we who attempt to know it. Which brings me to another question here…

    Surely it would be the height of self-absorption if all that we were to be concerned with was the ‘meaning’ side of phenomenon — and took that to mean (!): what and how this phenomenon ‘means’ for us, the human knowers of it. In other words, taking a ‘phenomenological’ approach, as you say you do, or situating your analysis within the tradition of critique, while interesting on its own, threatens to render the entire analysis as nothing more than a rehearsal of the human-sidedness (or knower-centrism) of the whole Kantian tradition (and I know that this might be an “external” criticism…). By avoiding the much more practical and difficult ‘being’ side of the phenomenon, we avoid the true spirit of real (and radical) empiricism, which is to seek to make direct contact with the anomaly, to interact with it so as to bring ourselves closer to its own reality, thus allowing the spontaneity of the ‘being’ to itself interrupt our epistemic frame. I understand that I am (perhaps idiosyncratically) theorizing the transition from liminal object (anomaly) to scientific appropriation via a new framework of understanding, but I believe that this might actually be the much more profound — and productive — corollary to your very interesting suggestion that what we might have before us is an ‘aesthetic’ phenomenon. Yes, let us take up in earnest this last of Kant’s critiques — but does it not circle back to the very foundation, perhaps the formative ontological basis, of science itself: that a ‘science’ as such is the spontaneous creation of new ‘rules’ of judgment of what we encounter in the starkness of ‘being’ itself (if you will pardon my poeticism for the moment — I am not trying to arrogantly intercede).

    I really do believe, then, that ‘being’ and ‘meaning’ cannot actually be separated, but that, in encountering a liminal or anomalous phenomenon that escapes our ontology and epistemology, this is not cause for exasperation over its reality, but rather a formative moment of a potentially new science itself. What I see in the ‘critical’ tradition is a fear of affirmation, as if we give something precious away when we affirm the ‘being’ of something. Surely, critique has its place; but equally surely it shouldn’t be a mechanism of alienation which results in empirical agnosticism.

    As I must be wrong on many points sketched above, I would appreciate correspondence on this question.

    Thanks for writing on the UFO phenomenon, and thanks for reading.


    1. Mike, first, I apologize that your intervention here was not immediately approved, as it got caught in the spam filter (due, I imagine, to its length), and I only found it this morning.

      Your own background harmonizes very much with my own, though your studies in the philosophy of science and physics are doubtless more profound than mine (I did, by the way, study with Herbert Korte in my undergraduate years). To say too much too briefly, the philosophical orientation here is very much informed by the tradition you remark but as well by the tradition extending from the Athenaeum down to Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, Andrew Bowie, and Gabriel Markus (I think).

      When you raise the question of the being (reality, nature) of the phenomenon and that of a possible science of UFOs (a ufology?), you do touch on matters treated here, though in a very rough-and-ready quasi-Kantian manner (Some notes can be read here: https://skunkworksblog.com/2019/08/02/notes-towards-a-prolegomena-to-a-future-ufology/ and there’s useful node concerning especially that being/meaning distinction here https://skunkworksblog.com/2020/06/13/what-we-have-here-is-a-failure-wait-weve-been-here-before/ ). If you’ve ever had the mischance to witness or engage in a discussion over the reality of the phenomenon between believers and skeptics you’ll understand what I mean by “exasperating”. Except among rare, like-minded interlocutors such discussions are exhausting and pointless (poke your head into, e.g., UFO Updates on FB, which is one of the good ones(!) to see what I mean). Moreover, I know my own interests and knowledge base well enough not to venture into questions of physics, atmospheric or otherwise, optics, etc. So that distinction (which even I acknowledge is all-too-easily deconstructible) is in a sense strictly methodological (“ideal”) and allows me to get on with the ideological-critical reflections and poetic composition that floats _my_ boat. So, I’m not attempting to develop or even critique a scientific ufology here but trying always to be clear in a topic dominated by a fascination with the question of the being of the phenonemon and the rancour between believers and skeptics to make some space for what I’m up to and to make clear just what that is, which, you can imagine, ain’t all that clear to most folks right off!

      I must disagree that no longterm, serious, or concentrated efforts have been made. We know that various militaries and intelligence agencies have, understandably, sought to get to the bottom of what may be a defense concern; remember, modern UFOs first appear as “Foo-Fighters” in the aerial theatres of the second war and as “Ghost Rockets” in Scandinavia immediately following. These same defense agencies have since, arguably, weaponized the phenomenon (as a visionary rumour) for their own propagandistic ends. In the civilian sphere, one can point to the ongoing research into the Hessdalen lights or Rutledge’s Project Identification; a review of some recent work in this vein is Sturrock, Peter A. _The UFO Enigma: A New Review of the Physical Evidence_, New York: Warner, 1999. My apologies if these offerings are old news.

      In my own way, speaking personally, apart from the project ongoing here at the blog, I remain persuaded there is a “real” mysterious phenomenon, i.e., some cases, that if true as they are reported, are most brow-furrowing, while, at the same time, I am less persuaded of the “solid evidence” as you call it, though a literature review might persuade me otherwise. My own leanings in this regard are motivated primarily by Jacques Vallée’s writings, from his earliest attempts to get a handle on the phenomenon (_Anatomy of a Phenomenon_ and _Challenge to Science_ down to the trilogy _Dimensions_, _Revelations_, and _Contact_). All that being said, I surely agree a case can be made that the phenomenon might very well be approached as a “challenge to science”, that, as you write, we are simply faced with yet another problem in liminal epistemology.

      I think your understanding of Vallée’s proposal that the phenomenon functions as a metasystem is cogent. He has also referred to it as a “control system”. Precisely that “given the evidence we have, (at least some of) these objects (whatever they are) are intelligently controlled objects of unknown origin implementing a knowledge of the natural world that simply exceeds our own. And given this, there is a rather straightforward sense of ‘meaning’ imputed here: as intelligently controlled objects, their activity is saturated with an intentionality which we simply cannot (yet) decipher (both in terms of their goals, or, more fundamentally, in terms of the meaning-structure within which these objects are embedded).” And I whole-heartedly endorse your proposal that the phenomenon demands not a determinative but reflective judgement (in a sense, following Heidegger and the notion of Being’s being merely the fact a world is understood), what is not?!), that science “circle back to the very foundation, perhaps the formative ontological basis, of science itself: that a ‘science’ as such is the spontaneous creation of new ‘rules’ of judgment of what we encounter in the starkness of ‘being’ itself”.

      But for all that, and I make this clear in the post https://skunkworksblog.com/2019/01/14/concerning-ufology-de-facto-de-jure/ , it remains de jure possible to bracket all the very cogent objections you bring to bear, until, at least, that liminal phenomenon is brought into the circle of beings, to think _as if_ the phenomenon is nothing more than a visionary rumour (which it surely does function as) and to probe the implications of its “spiritual” (geistig) reception. My critique of Avi Loeb’s project is, I think, representative in this regard.

      I trust I’ve been able both to make my methodology here clear and have appreciated your objections.

      Thanks, again, for the valued and substantive intervention!


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