“The theme has vista”: the question of UFO reality and the Myth of Things seen in the Sky

When I announced the launch of Mike Cifone’s Entaus blog (that, since, has been going “like ten bear” as we say), I noted

Cifone’s approach is complementary to and marginally overlaps that pursued here. Where I bracket the question of the reality, nature, or being of the UFO to focus on its meaning, Cifone has resolutely set his sights on thinking through just what a knowledge or science of that reality might be. Of course, the line that divides the being from the meaning of the phenomenon touches both…

Cifone has probed and questioned that “meaning / being” distinction (as has Jeffrey Kripal), interrogations that prompt me, here, to reflect on the field or space wherein that line is drawn.

Anyone acquainted with the topic of UFOs will quickly be struck by its division into Believers and Skeptics or Debunkers if not moved or forced to take a side themselves. The interminable strife between the two sides is fought, more or less, over the question of “the reality” of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). Generally, Believers believe that UAP are more properly UFOs, not so much phenomena (or mere “appearances”) but real, anomalous, unidentified objects (however much many of them insist on going one step further and identifying them as, e.g., alien spaceships…), while Debunkers maintain that there is in fact nothing behind the phenomena, which are merely misidentifications, illusions, hoaxes, and rumour. UFOs are either some thing or nothing.

When the UFO curious turn their attention from the unidentified flying object to the subject of the witness or experiencer, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) take long to discover the phenomenon can inspire a religious or spiritual response. The cognoscenti will know that this dimension of the phenomenon has long been a subject of study among scholars of religion. Part of the methodology of such research is “to bracket” questions of the truth of witness testimony or that of whatever reality might lie behind it all the better to focus on the character of the experience and its effects, changes in beliefs and behaviour. Kripal, for his reasons, is impatient with the assumptions and implications of this practice, and Cifone (in comments here at Skunkworksblog and in private communication with our team) has more rigorously argued, at least, that the border between these two focii may be blurrier than the practicing sociologist is aware or willing to admit. As much as I agree with Cifone’s criticisms (which echo some of Hegel’s criticisms of Kant, that to draw a limit is to think both sides of the limit), it seemed to me that where that limit is drawn is itself only one border of a much larger field.

What first inspired my adult interest in the matter were the abduction accounts increasingly in the air in the early Nineties. My reflexive response was skeptical: no one is really being abducted by aliens. Because I rejected out of hand a literal interpretation of these accounts, a space was opened to understand these stories in another way. Being a poet and literary scholar and therefore not unacquainted with Surrealism and its inspiration in Freud’s Traumdeutung, a view into the matter that hinged on the notions of manifest and latent content opened up before me. Because these accounts were retrieved under hypnosis, it seemed to me they were more like dreams than memories, significant more for their meaning (latent content) than for the story they told (their manifest content). Given the foment in reproductive technology at the time—the Human Genome Project, cloning, and In Vitro Fertilization—should it have come as a surprise that women would have nightmares about being subject to gynecological experiments carried out by impersonal, cold-blooded aliens? (Bridget Brown probes the matter in greater depth and breadth in her They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves: The History and Politics of Alien Abduction). It was this initial intuition that quickly dilated to encompass the countless stories about the UFO, to grasp them as a kind of collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of late Twentieth-Century technological society.

What first caught (and continues to keep) my attention, then, was and is not “the UFO itself” but the stories about it, its culturally “virtual” dimension. On this side of whatever experience might motivate sighting reports, there is a vast, practically infinite cultural field, non-fictional and fictional: the reports themselves, articles, books, documentaries, films and television series, graphic novels, on and on. Of course, to those enamoured or otherwise obsessed with the matter of the UFO’s ultimate reality, my interest must seem a wayward dalliance (though I imagine proponents of the Psychosocial Hypothesis might disagree), but there’s little denying that this cultural aspect of the UFO is as “real” a reality for human consciousness in general as whatever experiences are associated with sightings or encounters. It’s in the form of some representation, image or story, that most people know about UFOs as opposed to the relatively small number who claim to have seen or otherwise experienced something. Indeed, that this “spiritual” (German: geistig) aspect is in some ways even more real than whatever physical reality UFOs might in fact possess is a case I have made here, before.

At the level of getting the creative and critical work done and evading the black hole of “the UFO controversy”, the approach I outline does the trick. The aesthetic value of a cinematic work of art, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, does not depend upon whether UFOs are “real”, and my collaborator and I can quite successfully study the worldview and values and other features of the Raëlian Movement International without having to determine the veracity of Claude Vorilhon’s first witness report. However, from a more philosophical or, strictly, epistemological point of view, Cifone’s and Kripal’s interventions demand attention and even, in the grand(er) scheme of things, threaten to destabilize at least the strictly humanistic study of the UFO phenomenon thought as a “myth of things seen in the sky.”

In the first place, the spatial metaphor that would draw a line between the countless representations of the the UFO (the myth or mythology) and whatever phenomenon or phenomena that in fact stimulate witness reports and the placing of this stimulus in a small corner of the field is misleading, as it effaces the temporal, historical dimension of the whole matter. From the point of view of the Believer, the mythology is continually maintained by ever new reports and revelations (disclosures if not Disclosure). The “space” here is like that of a night sky: however much we might only ever be able to observe the light from distant stars (the mythology), real objects (Unidentified Flying Objects) are the source of this information in however a variously refracted or diffused form it reaches us. For the Skeptic, however, the total phenomenon (mythology and stimuli) is essentially temporal. No observation is ever “naive”. Seeing something as a UFO is an interpretation guided if not governed by pre-existing images and stories already “in the air”, the cultural horizon of the witness. For the skeptic, the UFO is essentially hyperreal; that what one is seeing is a “UFO” is confirmed by representations of UFOs already familiar to the witness. The relation between the mythology and whatever inspires witness reports is distorted by attempting to map them onto some space (aside from the very question of dividing the field into these two spaces in the first place).

Vigilant readers will notice I have, 1) overturned the metaphor of a field or space whereby I first thought to respond to Cifone’s and Kripal’s objections and, 2) skirted the still pertinent question of how the nature of the UFO phenomenon might in fact relate to the mythology that radiates from it (if not maintain it). Not that I imagine to resolve so complex and recalcitrant an issue, but, in my next post, I propose a “radical” “theory” of the UFO (which I doubt today’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon hearing before the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation Subcommittee is likely to derail)…

6 thoughts on ““The theme has vista”: the question of UFO reality and the Myth of Things seen in the Sky

  1. Very thoughtful and helpful as usual, Bryan. As you suggest, however, in referring to Cifone and Kripal, the stimulus that triggers UFO encounters (and many other paranormal phenomena) is certainly as worthy of thought as is the countless memes arising from paranormal experiences. Both aspects of the UFO/UAP need attention. One point where I disagree with you is your (apparent) claim that all alien abduction accounts are retrieved via hypnosis. This claim is false, at least according to the abundant research (including interviews) that I have done on this strange phenomenon. Many people have at least some conscious recall of what occurred. Yes, there is a possibility of confabulation, especially with hypnosis, but hypnosis has not been the only way in which people have remembered abduction experiences. Thank you again for sharing your insights at Skunkworks!

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  2. Michael,

    Thank you for your intervention, to which I need make two responses.

    First, that distinction too-quickly worded as that between the meaning and being of the phenomenon is perniciously complex. In one respect, I think I am able, here, in this post, to stake out defensible grounds for what I’m up to at Skunkworks, which is arguably more a work of conceptual poetry than cultural theory (though, in the tradition that comes down to us from Jena, I cheerfully blur the genres…). However, a more scrupulous and vigilant inspection of the matter reveals at the same time a more perplexing and troubling logic, especially when directed at the methodological gesture of “bracketing”. I have and will have more to say on the matter…

    Second, re abductions. In the post, my claim is more about my reception of this particular visionary rumour than a claim about any facts around the experience in general. There is, therefore, no contradiction between your observations and my reception. That reception received, first, the story of the Hill’s, then the journalistic representation, then that first wave of books by Hopkins, Jacobs, and Mack, wherein nearly all the narratives are retrieved via hypnosis–_or so I seem to remember_. I would have to verify Brown’s take on the matter. That being said, the mythopoetic project of which Skunkworks is an aspect can, I think, be forgiven if it takes dictation from the Unconscious in this regard.

    I look forward to continuing this conversation… The theme, after all, has vista…

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