Getting to a root of the matter: a “radical” “theory” of the UFO Phenomenon if not the UFO-in-itself

In thinking about the relation between the UFO mythology (the countless stories about UFOs in whatever medium) and whatever prompts witness experiences and reports, the etymology of our word ‘theory’ struck me as offering some guidance. The first use of ‘theory’ in more-or-less our present sense is from the “1590s, ‘conception, mental scheme,’ from Late Latin theoria, from Greek theōria ‘contemplation, speculation; a looking at, viewing; a sight, show, spectacle, things looked at,’ from theōrein ‘to consider, speculate, look at,’ from theōros ‘spectator,’ from thea ‘a view’ (see theater) + horan ‘to see’.” It’s this latter sense of theōros, spectator, that opens a new view on the matter, for a theōros was not only a spectator in the theatre but, as Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us in his magnum opus Truth and Method, “theōros means someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival” (124). The city states of ancient Greece would send such delegations to their sister cities as representatives to that city’s religious observations and to participate in them as such.

If we adopt the perspective of such “theoreticians” and visit the city state of the UFO people, we’d find, among much else, that the scripture of this city state’s cult is composed of two kinds of texts, Testaments and Commentaries. The Testaments are the witness reports at various removes from the original words of the witness (think of Kenneth Arnold’s first words to the journalists, one of whose stories coined the term ‘flying saucers’, then all the subsequent retellings of his testimony). These Testaments have inspired a vast body of secondary literature, the Commentaries (which often include their own retellings), which each attempt their elucidation and interpretation of the Testaments. Both these genres have also inspired a body of art in almost every conceivable medium. On the one hand, because there is no authoritative orthodoxy, either doctrinal or institutional, the corpus of Testaments and Commentaries is continually growing, as is the museum of artworks they inspire. On the other, however, because anyone can testify, and some who have done so have demonstrably lied, for various reasons, and anyone can write a commentary, there is considerable dispute and sometimes no little acrimony among the populace invested in the city’s UFO cult, its elaboration and interpretation.

The theōros, however, whatever their personal predilections, is present merely to observe and participate in the ritual observances solely in their role as observer-participant. This is to say, they can study and appreciate the mind-boggling richness of the Testaments and Commentaries without needing to take any position regarding their respective truth or significance themselves other than to adopt the tactful respect demanded of the visiting outsider. It’s in this stance of the theōros that their connection to our present-day theoreticians—sociologists and folklorists, for example–comes into view. Such who study the UFO mythology, the “visionary rumour”, do so as a kind of visitor to this (at least methodologically) foreign (“outlandish”) community of belief.They can in good faith report on the various beliefs and their complications and even speculate (at least upon their return home) on their character and significance, complementing if not enriching the mythological and religious culture of their own city.

The prime virtue of this analogy-from-etymology is that it clarifies more realistically the relationship between the theōros and those they study, which is markedly not that which obtains between a subject and object, as does obtain in, e.g., the physicist studying elementary particles. The observer is at the same time a participant, just one whose role is more-or-less clearly demarcated. It is precisely for this reason Gadamer invokes the etymology of the word, for the relation of spectator (theōros) to what is observed is an engaged, interested—in a word, hermeneutic—one. The social sciences—sociology and ethnology and others—have come to recognize this hermeneutic dimension and to integrate it into their respective methodologies. And it is the being both foreign and involved, apart and embedded, of the theōros that captures at the same time the methodogical distance of the sociologist.

The argument, here, (if it can be called that) is good as far as it goes. There is no doubt that research of this kind can be carried out. I pointed out in an earlier post that, to move to the artistic sphere, Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a work of cinematic art entails no commitments on the part of the film maker to one or more positions concerning the transcinematic reality or nature of the phenomena that supply the material for the film’s plot. One is, therefore, on good ground, I argue, to posit that de facto the UFO mythology can be grasped as an object independently of having to take a position with regards to, to put it roughly, its “cause”.

However, at the same time—and this is the challenge posed by Kripal and Cifone—is it the case that de jure (in principle) sociological research if not artistic exploitation of the mythology does not entail if not demand such a position? Isn’t it the case that, e.g., the sociologist is a closet adherent of the Psychosocial Hypothesis, for, surely, the meaning if not the significance (to draw provisionally a not unproblematic distinction) of the matter will differ depending upon whether it is real or not. What I mean is that, in one regard, the meaning of what an Experiencer, for example, undergoes, will be the same regardless of whether the phenomenon is “real” or not, for that meaning is produced on this side of the phenomenon, that of the Experiencer themselves (a position taken by Vallée already in The Invisible College). However, taken at a societal level, the significance of what I’ve been calling here “the UFO mythology” will have a different significance, culturally (won’t it?) if the root “cause” is itself not merely “subjective” (misperceptions or deceptions on the part of the witness, as per the Psychosocial Hypothesis) but “objective” (whatever the nature of that objectivity might finally be). At this conceptual level, I remain undecided…

As for what is up at the Skunkworks (which some people persist in misapprehending), your author is more like a member of that visiting delegation who is back home a poet or philosopher. He observes the rites, hears the myths, discusses them with other attendees of the festival, and hies home with some scrolls of testimonies and commentaries under his arm. Retired to his country estate, he makes what he will of the word hoard he has returned with: his own recasting of the myths (the testimonies) and perhaps a commentary of his own, but one that hovers curiously between Wahrheit and Dichtung

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