Course Correction: On Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part III: Reflections

Here, I complete my extended report on Limina’s inaugural symposium. The first main division, an overview, can be read here. The second main division reports on and responds to presentations given by historian Greg Eghigian (here), religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal (here), and philosopher Babette Babich (here).

Anyone who has diligently (or, hopefully, curiously) read so far will note that I engage with only three of the symposium’s two dozen talks, presentations, and panels. Moreover, those three all occured on the event’s first day, devoted to the more-or-less humanistic aspect of UFO/UAP study. This focus will strike many “UFO people” as perverse, given that their overwhelming interest is in the mystery or question of the reality of the phenomenon (as Jung observed long ago, “news affirming the existence of the UFOs is welcome“). Their interest would be satisfied far more by the majority of the symposium’s presentations, which involved “scientific” approaches to the study of the phenomenon and, on the third day, specific cases. But, as I am neither a physicist nor astronomer, nor a researcher in the mold of Kevin Randle or Chris Rutkowski, for example, I’m in no position to engage with these presentations like I do those of Eghigian, Kripal, or Babich, whose talks addressed topics of interest to me here at the Skunkworks and that do fall within my wheelhouse if not expertise. That being said, I will sketch out the remainder of the participants’ contributions here for those disappointed (or frustrated…) by my treatment so far before reflecting on the symposium as a whole.

Of those presentations on the symposium’s first day, I have passed over four. That by Prof. Gabriel G. de la Torre, “Obsessed With UAPs [sic]: Psychological Aspects of the Phenomena”, though very germane to the remainder of the long weekend’s discussions, I did not attend as I had actually already written on its central thesis. That by Prof. Tim Murithi (“UAP, Truth Embargo and Amnesty Provisions: The Prospects for a Transitional Justice Approach”) I passed over due to its indulging the presuppositions of the Disclosure movement (interested parties can see him interviewed in the YouTube video linked in the post, here). Likewise, the presentation of Jinwoo Yu and Prof. Sunglyul Maeng, “A Silver Lining to Conservatism Towards Ufology”, despite the title, focussed primarily on UFO research in Korea and would have been as much at home on the symposium’s third day. Finally, as an organizer/participant, I’m not really in a position to remark on that day’s panel organized by myself and Michael Zimmerman, peopled by Prof. Babette Babich, Dr. Jacob Haqq-MisraAssoc. Prof. Stephen Finley, and Prof. Kevin H. Knuth, despite it lively and pertinent contribution to the symposium’s conversation.

As I remarked, the symposium’s second day focussed on questions of how to bring “hard” scientific research to bear on UAP. Prof. Dr. Hakan Kayal spoke on “UAP research at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg”, research both condoned and supported by the university institution and part of its curriculum. Philippe R. C. Ailleris, Prof. Matthew Szydagis, and Prof. Wesley Watters all reported on their research efforts. Of these, Szydagis, speaking on behalf of his UAPx team, was the most impressive (to me) by virtue of the energetic, self-critical vigilance of he and his team, which spoke both to their level-headed cautiousness and seriousness. Prof. Joaquim FernandesFrancisco Mourão Corrêa, and Prof. Raul Berenguel introduced the Portuguese research initiative STELLAR–International Observatory of Anomalous Phenomena and their research into the Fatima Event (more on that, later). Dr. Beatriz Villarroel brought astronomical research to bear, in the efforts of the VASCO project (“Searching for ET Probes with Vanishing & Appearing Sources (VASCO) During ‘A Century of Observations’ Project”). Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra returned to the topic of Carl Sagan, with what struck me as more a foray into establishment science’s responses to the topic of UFOs. Finally, Dr. Silvano Colombano explained “A Machine Learning Methodology for Filtering and Classifying Unformatted Natural Language Reports”. These presentations all explored the methodologies, logistics, and nuts-and-bolts of research conducted in the field rather than the library and study. Despite the recent upsurge in public interest; renewed, overt official investigation; and even institutional sanction (such as that at the University of Würzburg), all that day’s speakers, almost without exception, spoke of the struggle and need for funding, a situation that confirmed Babette Babich’s proposals concerning the way knowledge-as-such is legitimated as much through its institutional support as by any theory or evidence brought to the table.

Prof. Daniel Coumbe gave the third day’s keynote address, “Anomaly: Searching for a Black Swan Event”, wherein he presented in nuce his recently published Anomaly: A Scientific Exploration of the UFO Phenomenon (reviewed here and here)), which formulates a UAP case rating system and applies it to four paradigmatic cases: the Japanese Airlines Cargo Flight 1628 sighting; the Ubatuba, Brazil, UFO fragments; the Lonnie Zamora close encounter at Socorro, New Mexico; and the Aguadilla object observed at Rafael Hernandez International Airport, Puerto Rico. This latter incident was the showcase of the day, scrutinized (however differently) by  Mick West (“Extracting Lines of Sight and Reconstructing Object Motion from Noisy Video Data”) and Robert M. Powell (“An Analysis of the April 25, 2013 Aguadilla, Puerto Rico IR Video”). After a break, the day’s second session shifted focus to speculations concerning the nature of UAP themselves, first, with Prof. Dr. Karl Svozil posing the question “Is Revising Inertia The Key to Zigzag Motion and ‘Anti-Gravity’?” in his delightfully energetic if somewhat “rhizomatic” presentation that outran its allotted time. Dr. Massimo Teodorani (who will be giving a number of not unrelated lectures in the near future) then shared his research on the Hessdalen Lights, “Testing the Possible Propulsion Mechanism of UAPs [sic]”. The day ended with a third session, wherein Prof. Kevin H. Knuth examined “Evidence Suggesting that Some UAPs are Advanced Non-Human Craft” and an extended conversation between journalists Leslie KeanRalph BlumenthalAndreas MüllerRoss Coulthart, and George Knapp.

Limina’s inaugural symposium was an important event, both as a gathering of varied and disparate researchers, the majority of whom are academically credentialed (important in itself, as Babich would be the first observe) and as the launching point for that research that will be gathered and chronicled between the covers of Limina: the Journal of UAP Studies, the newest of those very few peer-reviewed journals devoted to the topic. Nevertheless, as an opening of the field, the thinking at the conference was determined in a number of ways by the horizon within which it appeared.

First, participants and attendees both were often given to a certain credulity when it comes to just what might be said to constitute the phenomenon in general. I’ve already remarked this tendency in Jeffrey Kripal’s talk and Tim Murithi’s presentation. More generally, the conference tended to orbit a more-or-less uncritical acceptance of the mythology’s latest episode, namely that set forth in the New York Times articles of 2017 and the attendant leak of the three famous U.S. Navy videos. This tendency was most (increasingly irritatingly to me) on display in the symposium’s final event, the panel of journalists Kean, Blumenthal, Müller, Coulthart, and Knapp. All, whether sincerely or out of self-interest or some mixture of both, enthusiastically endorsed the stories they had written in this respect (n.b. Knapp is a co-author of the self-published Skinwalkers at the Pentagon and likely more famous for his “breaking” the Bob Lazar story). But, worse, they no-less enthusiastically endorsed rumours of metamaterials and the retrieval of crashed UAP. The problem—aside from the belief system at work here–is that all these stories are based on hearsay, just as all the putative “evidence” set forth by the Disclosure Movement.

That the panel’s journalists should hold forth what they did is not incomprehensible. In his book Revelations (1991 (!)), Jacques Vallée was curious “to find out what it was that had led so many of [his journalist] friends to believe such things… They were hardworking reporters who claimed to have solid, first-hand human sources. And some of their sources were said to be government agents and other officials who existed in the flesh.” In trying to satisfy his curiosity, Vallée observes that his friends depended on those sources for their stories, sources of “privileged information…[that] you are afraid to be cut off from… if you offend” them (emphasis in the original). I do not intend to impugn the professionalism of any member of the journalists’ panel, but I question the relatively unreserved acceptance of the stories they tell, especially in an academic forum, regardless of how methodologically agnostic.

Not unrelated to this reflexive set of beliefs is the all-too-ready acceptance of the more historically-sanctioned Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Throughout—from Babich’s immediate, untroubled association of UAP and ETs, to Murithi’s assumptions, to Svozil’s and Knuth’s explicit speculations—the ETH haunted the proceedings like an otherwise unremarked participant or attendee. It was only Greg Eghigian who ably parsed the two ideas, to the incomprehension of many in attendance (as evidenced by the chat stream). As usual, I do not call the “hypothesis” itself into question, but merely observe that de facto flying saucers and intelligent extraterrestrial beings came to be associated ufologically only after the fact however much they were already associated in the popular imagination long before June 1947, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Psychosocial Hypothesis will know. Readers here will know, too, there are other grounds to question the ETH, more cultural critical, philosophical-conceptual grounds, but, be that as it may, it was striking how the ETH enjoyed an even deeper, more unconscious, ready acceptance than the more overt inflections of the UFO mythology I remark above.

These two features of the proceedings suggest what was lacking to correct or at least balance them. First, the only “skeptic” participant was Mick West, who handled himself ably and was well-received. The input of more such level-headed, respectful skeptics is needed to at least problematize those views and narratives that otherwise go insufficiently scrutinized. Skepticism of this sort is also rooted in an acquaintance with the history of the phenomenon. For example, Daniel Coumbe examines two cases—JAL 1628 and that of Lonnie Zamora—both possessed of a large body of commentary (of, admittedly, various quality) that considerably complicates the matter. When historical cases are presented, a literature review, however labour-intensive and downright tiresome, is called for. The presence of, e.g., researcher Kevin Randle would have been valuable in this regard, as the author of a fairly recent book on the Zamora case. The STELLAR team’s presentation on Fatima is another case in point.

This final contention underlines the importance (import) of the historicity of the phenomenon probed to some extent in Eghigian’s keynote address. That is to say, that contemporary research—humanistic, “scientific”, or journalistic—neither falls immaculate from heaven nor starts from a blank slate (experience always falls upon a “never barren imagination”, as Greg Eghigian observed) but is possessed of an “historical-conceptual unconcious” that determines its thinking and questions abyssally, i.e. to a depth that can never finally be plumbed or brought to light (consciousness). What is needed then is a persistent, scrupulous “desedimentation”, Destruktion, or “deconstruction” (in these rigorous senses), conceptual-philosophical, historiographical, and historical-materialist / ideological-critical at least. Such labour might well serve to undermine our existing schemes of knowledge and methodology and enable them to uproot themselves from the ground that keeps them from ascending to those new heights of understanding where they might meet UAP in their own element.

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