A Note on Cultural Seismology…

Pretty much from the start, an essential distinction here at the Skunkworks, and one given to increasingly acute reflection, has been that between the being and the meaning of the UFO phenomenon, that is, between a concern with identifying and explaining the nature or cause of UFOs (answering the question, “What are they?”) on the one hand and an exploration of the infinite stories about UFOs in various media, including the original sighting reports themselves, and their meaning for culture and society at large on the other. The earliest articulation of our position on the question was the post “Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO”. Persistent if impertinent prodding from Rich Reynolds necessitated further clarification with “On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”. And, most recently, positions taken by Jeffrey Kripal and Hussein Ali Agrama and trenchant criticisms levelled by Mike Cifone inspired “’The theme has vista’: the question of UFO reality and the Myth of Things seen in the Sky” and “Getting to a root of the matter: a ‘radical’ ‘theory’ of the UFO Phenomenon if not the UFO-in-itself”.

I’ve been the first to admit that too rigidly-drawn a distinction is de jure subject to deconstruction in the rigorous sense. I have, at the same time, argued that textuality determines the phenomenon as a condition of possibility for its being experienced at all, (and text is, in the restricted sense, after all, the object of hermeneutics par excellence). But this argument is neither here nor there in this regard, for what’s at stake is whether and, if so, to what extent and by what warrant the question of the cause of the experience can be “bracketed” from its textual, artefactual effects (sighting reports and subsequent articles, books, documentaries and films, nonfictional and fictional, etc.). Such bracketing (even if practiced in his own way by Jacques Vallée in one study) arguably precisely by its foregoing the question answers the question of the being of the phenomenon—in the negative, whether tactfully, in not stating so outright, or in treating the question, whether methodologically or in fact, as being of no account. Kripal and Agrama have found such bracketing “a cop out” to avoid the challenge to official ontology apparently posed by the phenomenon.

Into this dispute drops a new book, Andy Bruno’s Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy. Ethan Pollock in his recent review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement makes clear its pertinence to the problem addressed here:

In Tunguska: A Siberian mystery and its environmental legacy, Andy Bruno explores what happened [after the event] with remarkable drive, energy and what he calls ‘strategic agnosticism’: a skilful weaving together of Russian and Soviet history, modern science and environmental studies that gives no approach the upper hand. Other scholars have written about Tunguska from various perspectives, but almost always in order to try to explain what happened that day in 1908. Bruno focuses instead on how specific genres of storytelling and scientific argumentation created and sustained popular and professional curiosity over the ensuing century. (my emphasis)

Here, we have an example of a study that manages unproblematically to bracket an undoubtedly real event (whose ontological status contrasts sharply with that much more dubitable one of UAP) from its textual wake, those stories and arguments “created and sustained [by] popular and professional curiosity over the ensuing century.”

Bruno’s work is especially relevant, as it addresses directly the half-humorous line of attack on bracketing launched by Kripal and Agrama, who compare bracketing the question of the being of the phenomenon from its meaning as is customary in the social sciences to adopting the same approach with regards to radiation. On the one hand, the analogy is questionable if not specious, given the marked difference in ontological status between radiation and UAP; on the other, however, Bruno’s study demonstrates both the ease and promise of shifting perspective from engaging in the attempt to resolve the controversies about the nature of even an undoubtedly real event and its cultural shock waves.

But the whole matter admits of a finer-grained analysis. In our classic study of the Raëlian Movement, Susan Palmer and I, like good religious studies scholars, bracket the question of whether Claude Vorilhon in fact experienced what he claims to have; rather we expose the ideological underpinnings of the Message to account for the success of Vorilhon’s New Religious Movement. In the strictly poetic work one can find here (the work toward the epic Orthoteny), the “reality” of the UFO is as irrelevant as that of the gods of Homer and Hesiod to their respective poems or that of the saints and angels in Dante’s Commedia to his. In the more cultural critical essays that make up most of the posts here at the Skunkworks, the problem is more complex. In some regards, the focus is precisely and exclusively on what I’ve termed here “cultural shockwaves” along the lines pursued by Bruno, UFO books, movies, and other media and the thinking that goes into and on around them. Here, I read (i.e., attend hemeneutically) to “the UFO mythology”, which, as a mythology, is grasped in the same way a reader approaches the Iliad and Odyssey, the Theogeny, or the Commedia. In these instances it might be argued that I adopt a tacit acceptance of some version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis, for, as I ponder in a more recent, more cautious post: “the significance of what [I call] ‘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).” In this latter regard, it seems to me, Bruno’s work legitimates, to a point (always relative to the particular questions motivating the research), bracketing the question of the reality (if not the nature) of the phenomenon from its meaning effects. So, regardless of whether there is a physically real, genuine mystery to UAP, the work here and in sociology departments can proceed for the time being in good conscience—at least until Disclosure (and even then!).

2 thoughts on “A Note on Cultural Seismology…

  1. By bracketing the reality of the phenomenon as such we effectively take the position that the being just is the meaning, for that is the only “reality” with which one is essentially left. As a matter of course this does not impact the ensuing analysis, for only in the case where that being is not itself even accessible (possibly or actually) by those for whom its meaning is our analytical object of interest, said being can justifiably be bracketed. However, let’s suppose that that being is, in some way or other, actually accessible to those for whom it’s meaning is our object of interest. Then our question is: how does this access affect the character of our analysis? The answer would seem to be that it adds another nuance to it, for now we may evaluate how it is that the (accessible) being, in its reality, is received or interpreted by those for whom its meaning is our focus and concern. Let’s take the phenomenon of fire or combustion. Surely bracketing its being does not mean that we doubt whether there is a phenomenon to be experienced. If so then we must at least grant the presence of a phenomenon whose inner nature is not entirely disclosed in the mere phenomenological presentation of the thing: neither fire nor a UAP when it appears shows us entirely what it is. Despite Aristotle’s (metaphysical) mode of analysis in this regard, we have learned by the much later experimental tradition of modern science that only by closing the distance between object and knowing subject can genuine knowledge arise. Even so, fire has a certain “meaning” for those who encounter it that may be considered independently from the being of the thing in itself. But when those for whom fire has meaning attribute to it a definite character, then their attribution can be evaluated only against a knowledge of what that phenomenon is (its being), and then we who are engaged in an understanding of its meaning for those experiencers are obliged to factor into our analysis whether their meaning accords with the actual being or not. Under certain conditions is the question of the being of a phenomenon become directly and unavoidably relevant. And under those conditions the burden of taking a position on that being falls squarely on the shoulders of the analyst of its meaning, who acts conveniently at a distance from their object of study, which distance must be closed under the conditions we have attempted to articulate.

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    1. “By bracketing the reality of the phenomenon as such we effectively take the position that the being just is the meaning, for that is the only “reality” with which one is essentially left. As a matter of course this does not impact the ensuing analysis, for only in the case where that being is not itself even accessible (possibly or actually) by those for whom its meaning is our analytical object of interest, said being can justifiably be bracketed.”
      —This statement strikes me (first thing in the morning, drinking my first coffee) as a little confusing. As an example, Palmer’s and my study of the appeal of Claude Vorilhon’s Message, which he claims to have received in person and telepathically from this ET teachers, the Elohim. In that study, as is methodologically customary, we simply do not raise the question of the truth of Vorilhon’s claims concerning the source of the Message, only the ideological grounds of its success in converting people to his cause. (The unspoken question that motivated that study and its argument was “What makes so kooky a message appealing?”, the answer being that the ideology of this fringe discourse is in perfect harmony with that of mainstream society in the so-called advanced society, the unquestioned “truth” and efficacy of the technoscientific…). This is an especially juicy example to throw back to Kripal and Agrama, for whom our eschewing the question of the truth of Vorilhon’s claims regarding his meeting the Elohim, their whisking him away to their planet, etc, is a “cop out”. My whole cultural critical discourse would have been stalled from the start had we been methodologically required to forensically investigate Vorilhon’s claims, an investigation that could not have come to any strictly rational final conclusion. Here, I’m tempted to short-circuit the whole question and just side with Vallée in his espousal of a descriptive phenomenology, in which the question of “reality” of the cause of the experience and its nature is held in abeyance to focus on the effects of the that experience, an experience that is always already an understanding (an interpretation), i.e., even a mystical experience paradoxically results in a linguistic efflorescence both by the experiencer and more importantly by subsequent discourses that take the experience as their object. From the experience ripples out a textual shock wave, hence the title of my last post. Those waves can be studied for their own sake without having to return to that original experience to determine its “truth”, its reality or nature, even when that undeniable reality if not nature (cause, explanation) is accessible, as in the Tunguska Event. Maybe you do address these thoughts in your discussion of the being and meaning of fire. Now, I am uncertain, during the course of today’s sunrise…

      “However, let’s suppose that that being is, in some way or other, actually accessible to those for whom its meaning is our object of interest.”
      —In this regard, UAP (unlike fire or even the Tunguska Event) are an esoteric phenomenon, one present (and the being of the phenomenon in this case _is_ presence, being present, first, to the senses or instruments and subsequently, in its traces, in memory or recordings of said instruments) only ever to some people (the witnesses). And, worse, the phenomenon is anomalous and unrepeatable and in its consensus reality even questionable in its reality…Thus, in the case of UAP, one might distinguish at least the significance of the experience for the Experiencers (e.g., Betty and Barney Hill) in their subsequent textual registers of the experience, texts that themselves are always necessarily intertextual, i.e, woven of discourses that precede and transcend the experiencers (i.e., not that you would think in this way, the experience doesn’t find its linguistic expression in a purely instrumental medium that unproblematically re-presents the experience as the early Wittgenstein’s ideal language might imaginably have been capable of doing), from the subsequent textual “ripples” (all the books and articles and talks about their reported experience). (Hm, it strikes me here my earlier distinction between Testimony and Commentary is coming into play here…).

      “Then our question is: how does this access affect the character of our analysis?”
      —This point is surely germane. With regard to UAP, I’m wrestling more with Kripal’s and Agrama’s accusations (too confident in their position, tacit and explicit, concerning the ontology of the phenomenon and how that ontology is related and relatable to its psychosocial effects—as if the those effects didn’t go both ways!) of social scientific methodological bracketing’s being a “cop out” and the too ready, half humorous analogy of UAP to radiation. (Often, it seems to me, and I could be wrong, that Kripal’s criticisms are aimed at the academic discourses he encounters in the course of his professional life, rather than the matter of thought they wrestle with or simply assume. I’ve made this point with regard to his claim that the social is not the ground of being…).

      “The answer would seem to be that it adds another nuance to it, for now we may evaluate how it is that the (accessible) being, in its reality, is received or interpreted by those for whom its meaning is our focus and concern.”
      —“Reality” here seems synonymous with “presence”…

      “Let’s take the phenomenon of fire or combustion. Surely bracketing its being does not mean that we doubt whether there is a phenomenon to be experienced. If so then we must at least grant the presence [my emphasis] of a phenomenon whose inner nature is not entirely disclosed in the mere phenomenological presentation of the thing: neither fire nor a UAP when it appears shows us entirely what it is.” [What, if any, are the implications of fire’s being exoteric and UAP being esoteric for your excursus, here?].

      “Despite Aristotle’s (metaphysical) mode of analysis in this regard, we have learned by the much later experimental tradition of modern science that only by closing the distance between object and knowing subject can genuine knowledge arise [as per your most recent post at Entaus]. Even so, fire has a certain “meaning” for those who encounter it that may be considered independently from the being of the thing in itself”
      –which is its “nature” or cause or truth–. But then, just here, it strikes me, the phenomenon never escapes a spontaneous understanding that is a condition for its appearing at all (and here difference(s) in the way that fire and UAP are parts of our world (in the Heideggerian sense, and just how anomalous phenomena might be fit into “the worldhood-of-the-world” is an interesting question!… Calling Michael Zimmerman, calling Michael Zimmerman, Michael Zimmerman, please report to the seminar room…) seems pertinent), an understanding that undermines a truth/appearance distinction that would underwrite scientistic claims to an authoritative access to the nature or truth of the phenomenon as opposed to that spontaneous understanding of it that both the scientist and nonscientist share in their sharing a world wherein there is such a thing (“thing” etymologically a site of or for consensus) as fire. I.e., the being or truth of the thing itself is itself merely another meaning and not one that can claim any priority in any absolute sense…

      “But when those for whom fire has meaning attribute to it a definite character, then their attribution can be evaluated [curious choice of words, over against e.g., ‘understood’ or ‘interpretated’…] only against a knowledge of what that phenomenon is (its being), and then we who are engaged in an understanding of its meaning for those experiencers are obliged to factor into our analysis whether their meaning accords with the actual being or not.”
      –And it’s just this distinction between a truth and understanding, a being and a meaning, a “truth” and “interpretation” (?) I am calling into question here… Surely I can examine and probe the fire imagery in a Hymn to the Hindu god Agni without raising the question of the “truth” of fire!

      “Under certain conditions is the question of the being of a phenomenon become directly and unavoidably relevant. And under those conditions the burden of taking a position on that being falls squarely on the shoulders of the analyst of its meaning, who acts conveniently at a distance from their object of study, which distance must be closed under the conditions we have attempted to articulate.”

      I do wonder, first, if I do justice to your intervention, here, and, more generally, if part of the murkiness of the problem is my own failing to be perfectly clear for myself and hence for anyone else about just what I’m up to. Perhaps the object of my cultural critique is primarily the ETH and its intertextual if not ideological underpinnings. Though I think a no less important development in this vector of thinking hasn’t been as well the exposure of a colonialist shadow in the UFO discourse, too (see especially my most recent post on Vallée’s CSH with regards to Our Lady of Gaudalupe and Joseph Smith and Mormonism…)
      Time to raise the glucose and caffeine levels in the blood and see what, hopefully, further understandings and reflections the day will bring…!

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