Sightings: Sunday 5 December 2021: Why it matters how we think about intelligence and technology

Watching a certain kind of article turn up on my news feeds gets a little like binge-watching The Walking Dead or one of its numerous spinoffs: how many times can one watch another zombie shamble into view to be dispatched? Surely, some readers here might justifiably feel the same when the topic of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) or the very notion of an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization is raised and cut down.

Until such time as I can win a forum for my arguments as public as that of a certain Harvard professor of astrophysics I can’t help but persist in the exercise, at least to keep my brain fibres warmed up and limber and my critical machete honed. On (in?) the other hand, it might be time to clarify what my reflections on this topic intend…

Two articles that caught my attention this week and that provide good opportunities in this regard are Joelle Renstrom’s from Wired “Looking for Alien Life? Seek Out Alien Tech” and another from FuturismScientists Say There May Be ‘Humans’ All Over the Universe“.

Nanosats

Renstrom’s article collates ideas already addressed here (that SETI might prove more fruitful were it to search for technosignatures rather than signals from extraterrestrial civilizations) along with remarks and reflections from Seth Shostak and Susan Schneider that speculate about the implications for SETI of an extraterrestrial species’ having become post-biological: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens—the merging of biological beings and machines. Maybe they’ve become nanosats. Maybe they’re data or are part of a digital network that functions like a collective consciousness….”

The critical fissure, however, is right there in that first sentence: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens”, and even more in the article’s subtitle: “Shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs could break us out of anthropocentrism and help guide humanity’s future.” Ironically, the “paradigm shift” Renstrom outlines (“shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs”) is itself anthropocentric, modeled as it is on the self-understanding of one, very recent and by-no-means global, culture of Homo Sapiens. The unconscious narcissism (anthropocentrism) is evident in the way Renstrom outlines his argument:

If we assume that biological life of some sort emerged on other planets, then we can also make some educated assumptions about how that life evolved—namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers. Maybe those species invented artificial intelligence (AI) or virtual worlds. Advanced ET may have reached the “technological singularity,” the point at which AI exceeds human or biological intelligence. Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…

Despite the fact we have yet to determine how life arose on earth and have yet to detect it off-world (provided we could even recognize it when we encountered it…), one would have to be perversely stubborn not to be moved if not convinced by the sheer number of even earth-like planets so far discovered not to grant the assumption that life-as-we-know-it has emerged elsewhere in the cosmos. But note the leap Renstrom makes: “namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers.” Aside from the far-from-unquestionable concept of technology at work here, that equates technology with (or reduces it to) tool-use, how is it an “educated assumption” that life gives rise to technology, especially that exemplified by factories and computers not to mention the complex society and culture that underwrite them? It is, from the available evidence, not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology (in a more educated sense), but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model. The critical move occurs when a vector of “development” is projected from the present into an imagined future (“what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…”). If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

“…human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe”.

But what if those natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that govern evolution entailed that the morphology of life were more harmonious if not uniform, such that extraterrestrial, humanoid organisms were well within the realm of possibility? The theory of evolutionary convergence posits, roughly, that similar conditions can and will entail similar evolutionary developments. Mammals and cephalopods both possess eyes, though they do not share a common, eyed ancestor; likewise, birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs all developed flight independently. On these grounds, evolutionary biologists believe that “they can ‘say with reasonable confidence’ that human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe“.

But some evolutionary biologists cannot resist the temptation to take the next step. An example is Ari Kershenbaum, the author of The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy who conjectures:

Some planets are just going to have simple life on them. Many, maybe even most. But let’s assume that we found a planet with something we would call intelligent life. No one gets intelligence just because it would be a cool thing to have; their ancestors must have benefited from that intelligence. If they reached the stage where they can build a radio telescope, then they must have been through the stages where it was advantageous to be curious, where it was advantageous to communicate.

Kershenbaum’s speculation seems offered in a blithe spirit, but it’s precisely its light-heartedness that betrays the shallowness of the thinking at its foundations. First, there is the failure to reflect on “intelligence”; for Kershenbaum, it’s merely what “we would call intelligent life”, apparently an “intelligence” like our own, or, more precisely (and narrowly), like that ability to solve technical problems, instrumental reason, that leads to the construction of radio telescopes. It’s as if, e.g., David Stenhouse hadn’t published his Evolution of Intelligence in 1974 (!) that sought to articulate intelligence as “adaptively variable behavior,” a conception that recently has been applied to research into plant cognition. More gravely is the way Kershenbaum’s conjectures dovetail from evolution (natural selection) to culture, as if the latter were unproblematically reducible to and explainable by the former….

undermining a position…

For the most part, discussions around UFOs, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), and SETI are divided between “believers” (UFOs are manifestations of the technology of extra-, ultra, or cryptoterrestrials, interdimensionals, or time travelers…) and “skeptics” (UFOs are a purely social or psychological phenomenon). Many who have encountered what I write here at Skunkworks slot it into the latter category, but, in doing so, really misread me.

At the end of the day, the questions posed by, e.g., The Galileo Project, are to be answered empirically. It may be that someday unequivocal evidence of nonhuman technology will be secured. However, at the same time, it is a legitimate question to ask just how such technology will be recognized as technology in the first place, just as it’s a legitimate question how we might recognize intelligent life (let alone life) if and when we encounter it offworld, let alone be recognized by that intelligent Other as its Other. What’s at stake in these questions is not a matter that can be resolved empirically, through observation or experiment; such questions address the concepts that are at the very basis of thinking about extraterrestrial life: What is technology, life, intelligence? As such it falls to philosophy to reflect on the assumptions and implications of the unconscious (assumed) content of these concepts as it is at work in the discourse about UAP and SETI.

The implications of how life, intelligence, technology, and related matters are thought are not merely “academic”, but reveal how the society and culture that deploy these concepts thinks about itself and other forms of life, human and otherwise. Speculations about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations or the future of our own are more science-fictions than evidence-based predictions, and, as such, function as mirrors that show ourselves to ourselves but in an indirect, distorted or estranged, way; like dreams, they may be said to reveal the unconscious of how we think about the world, and, like the unconscious, such thinking is not, strictly, rational. Indeed, these ideas can be shown to function ideologically, making seem inevitable and natural (and thereby defending and entrenching) a way of life that in fact is contingent and that favours one species or social group. Perhaps in this light what I write above is now more understandable:

It is…not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model… If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

Thus, speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization are in fact inextricable from and revelatory of the most urgent crises facing life on earth, climate change, environmental degradation, extinction, and the role of humankind (or certain of its societies) in this crisis. How we imagine extraterrestrial life is how we think about life on earth, the other species with which we cohabit it, and the ways of living with them that Homo Sapiens has invented over the millennia.

Telepathy and the Language of Thought

Synchronicity is one of the editors here at the Skunkworks. Not long back, a member of that Facebook group I monitor (for research purposes) linked an article by Rupert Sheldrake, “Rationalists are wrong about telepathy”, and, yesterday (30 November 2021), The Anomalist drew our attention to a post at UFO Conjectures, “Telepathy and Consciousness“.

Telepathy as such is, shall we say, a complex issue. Sheldrake’s article points to what seem instances of precognition, thinking of someone just before they telephone or email, for example. Popular culture is familiar with Zener card experiments, or aliens’ telling an abductee telepathically, “Don’t be afraid…Don’t be afraid…”.

This latter example echoes in a way what one member of the group commented on the Sheldrake article thread: “We already engage in telepathy—the projection of our thoughts to another brain. Speech, signals, written text, we’ve mastered it”, and it’s this conception of telepathy, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind, I want to address here.

What’s curious about the comment (that “we already engage in telepathy…”) are the assumptions that underlie its mistaken claim. Surely, communication by means of some sensuous medium (speech, gesture, writing…) is not telepathy, which is, in some regards (namely, that under consideration here, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind), precisely communication by some other as-yet unidentified means.

But what telepathy as thought here and the comment share is the idea that thought or ideas precede or are otherwise independent of language. It’s precisely this assumption that I understand to motivate the comment concerning “speech, signals, [and] written text” as “the projection of thoughts” into another’s mind, if not brain: one brain communicates a thought to another—by means of some (presumably shared) semiotic system.

This philosophy of language, that language represents independently pre-existing ideas or objects, belongs to the European Enlightenment and seems to be the default, popular notion of language and its operations. It is depicted in the illustration of the communicative circuit familiar to students of linguistics.

A has an idea, thought, or concept that they translate into some sensuous sign (here, speech) that B hears and translates back into thought. The problem is however that, since the advent of a science of language (called philology in the Eighteenth Century), this theory of language has been superseded.

It was Herder (1744-1803) and Hamann (1730-1788) who pressed the thesis that human thought is dependent on language. This position was shared and developed by Humboldt (1767-1835) and, perhaps most famously, by Ferdinand de Saussure, who explained the relation of thought and sound by means of the illustration, below:

A is thought and B is sound; both without the other are amorphous or, more precisely, unarticulated. Vocal sounds, unless they are are recognized as linguistic types (signs), by themselves are mere gibberish; thought (concepts) unrelated to signs have no identity. Saussure envisions the relation between thought, sound, and articulate language as that between the atmosphere and the surface of water, which gives rise to waves, whose formation arises from the conjunction and interplay of these two elements and is nothing in itself. (As Saussure so famously maintained: language is not a substance).

The indivisibility of thought and language reaches its most extreme statement in the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

If we take these developments in linguistic science seriously (notwithstanding the protestations of Jerry Fodor) then the possibility of that kind of telepathy discussed here vanishes: the purely mental transference of articulate thought between two people depends upon their sharing a language.

What’s important here is not so much telepathy in general, but that reported to occur between human beings and putative extraterrestrials. As Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously remarked, “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” How much less so an unearthly interlocutor? It does not follow that, given the possibility of telepathy in general, images or emotions or other nonlinguistic, inarticulate content might not be shared (the aliens could quite rationally subject human subjects to Zener card experiments…), just that no understandable thoughts per se could be exchanged. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: if a Zeta Reticulan were telepathic, we couldn’t understand what it was thinking.

Sightings: Saturday 27 November 2021: Mantes, Disinfo; Hyperreality, Irony

In a Facebook group I’m given to haunting, one member posted a number of photos of mantes (that’s (one) plural for ‘mantis’), observing, e.g., “Yet another photograph of a praying mantis that at the same time reminds me of how modern Western fantasy artists depict fairies AND extraterrestrials.”

Whether anyone else might make the same connection, what struck me is how I first took the claim: it’s not that (as in a sighting or encounter report) the alien Other (fairies or extraterrestrials) look like mantes but that the mantis resembles them.

At first I was reminded of the (post)modern phenomenon of hyperreality, where it’s not the original that legitimates or “grounds” the representation, but, in our media-saturated society, the other way around. The American novelist Don DeLillo provides a good example:  in his novel about the Kennedy assassination, Libra, a woman in the crowd that has come out to see the president says excitedly, “Oh! He looks just like his pictures!”.

The poster’s thinking is prima facie hyperreal in as much as it gives primacy to the representation (the pictures of fantasy artists) over the real object (the mantis) those representations are modelled after, i.e., what’s important about the mantis is its resemblance to artistic depictions, not how the mantis might inspire these representations or the encounter reports and folklore that the artists in turn interpret. Reality or its ground might be said to flow not from the real object to its picture, but from the picture to the real object.

But the poster’s thinking is both more uncanny and complex: it’s not the picture that makes the pictured real as in hyperreality, but, the representations of those liminal beings (fairies and extraterrestrials), whose very reality is questionable, that evokes the unquestionably real thing (the mantis). That is, the relation here is more ontological (the questionably real brings to mind the unquestionably real) than hyperreal (the picture grounds the authenticity of the depicted).

But what has been overlooked here is that it’s not mantes-as-such that bring to mind the artistic renderings of ETs and the Fae, but photographs of mantes that evoke artistic depictions. Strictly, one kind of picture brings to mind another kind; the photographs (themselves artistic renderings) bring to mind non-photographic artistic renderings. Is the resemblance between extraterrestrials and fairies on the one hand and mantes on the other, or is it between how mantids, liminal and real, are represented artistically? Is the poster moved by the resemblance between the insect and the reported morphology of certain alien Others or by conventions of artistic representation in different media?

What’s wound together here are two curious considerations. On the one hand is the transparency of media of representation, how attention is paid to what is pictured rather than the medium or manner of that picturing, an aesthetic anesthesia endemic to our time wherein the photographic has long since replaced the drawn or painted, but a moment no less of the erosion in our reflexive faith in photographic evidence (never mind realism) in an era of CGI and Deefakes. On the other is the no less thought-provoking resemblance between descriptions of nonhuman entities, extraterrestrial or otherwise, and their all-too-human or all-to-earthly morphology. This latter consideration doubtless has something to do with how anomalous experiences are made sense of and the provocative ways species and race are bound up with thinking about extraterrestrials….

A not unrelated development is the announcement that the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG) is to replace AATIP (Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program). The more excitable among the UFO community are persuaded this shift in (American) official stance toward Unidentified Aerial Phenomena is another move in that dance-of-many-veils called Disclosure.

A more historically-informed perspective, namely Kevin Randles’, judges “that we are looking at Twining 2.0, meaning there really is not much new here. We are in the summer of 1947 when the Pentagon didn’t know what was happening and began an investigation. The only real difference is that this seems to be more transparent… though the Navy has classified the sighting reports.”

A no-less deflationary stance is taken by a regrettably-pseudonymous author at Medium, “INFO_OPS” who makes the case that this most recent “UFO mania” beginning with the bombshell series of articles in The New York Times at the end of 2017, the subsequent creation of To The Stars Academy, down to this most recent announcement “is the result of a coordinated defense or intelligence influence operation.”

However much INFO_OPS’ adopting a pen-name (not unlike “Q”) raises the question of whether or not their contributions are any less part of “a coordinated defense or intelligence influence operation”, both their and Randles’ interventions underline that things are not as they seem, that the “official-version-of-events” is just that, a version of things, whose index-of-refraction, however much it seems transparent, is not.

This hermeneutics of suspicion can be applied not only to official statements about the phenomenon but to the phenomenon itself (or, at least, how it is itself represented in the form of sighting and encounter reports). Jacques Vallée has over decades consistently argued that the provocative irrationality of persistent features of the phenomenon mitigates against the theory that we are dealing with visitors, explorers, or invaders from other planets, dimensions, or times. Such high strangeness demands we reorient or reconfigure the categories by which we make sense of the world in order to integrate and assimilate the phenomenon’s bizarre behaviour. However, it’s precisely how destructive (if not deconstructive) the phenomenon is of our existing worldview in just this way that stages the phenomenon’s theatricality: the phenomenon is no longer what it appears to be (an alien spaceship surrounded by its crew collecting soil and plant samples, for example) but enacts a meaning beyond itself.

Such dissimulation, by government, media, or the phenomenon itself, bears a resemblance to literature, whose language is characterized precisely by its not saying what it means, operating by what critic Paul de Man termed “irony”. And there is surely no less (conventional) irony in the behaviour of the ufophilic or -maniacal. Their ardent desire for the truth, which would finally dispel the mystery, is the very reason they are so readily seduced by the bluffing and stonewalling of officialdom, the outright deception of intelligence operatives, the stories or tales of journalists, hoaxers, or outright hucksters, and, finally, perhaps—a la Vallée—the very phenomenon, a state of affairs that dates back to the earliest days of the modern phenomenon (post-1947), as can be read in the pages of Donald Keyhoe‘s books, that the Air Force possesses evidence of the truth of the matter but suppresses or misrepresents it until such time as the powers-that-be deem the general public fit to have the earth-shaking secret revealed. Instead of such revelation (or “disclosure”), we have experienced an endless deferral, a mindboggling efflorescence of reports, photographs and films, ‘zines, articles, books, documentaries, movies, and so on, in a word text, a situation summed up aptly in Derrida’s famous (and generally misconstrued) claim that “il n’y a rien en dehors du texte“…

Sightings: Saturday 6 November 2021: Science / Magic, “adaptively variable behavior” and related matters

This past week what caught the eye and/or sparked a thought was Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, Magic, and Science, and an Indigenous confirmation of the views I recently brought to bear against The Galileo Project and the attendant paradoxical implications of Star People….

I don’t often nod to other websites (Skunkworks should have a blog roll…), but a recent post at Curt Collins’ The Saucers That Time Forgot gives me the opportunity to draw attention to some of those I follow.

Collins’ post addresses Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” pointing out how “Almost from inception, the phrase has been used and abused to the point of cliché.” In doing so, Collins not only helps to clear away some of the fuzzy thinking that obscures the UFO phenomenon, but raises another topic of broader if not graver import.

Anyone familiar with the writings of Renaissance scholar Frances Yates will know how entwined magic and science are, mixed together as they are in the foment of Hermeticism and related movements just before the foundations of the Royal Society (the original Invisible College) were being set down. Both seek to control nature and their respective natures are much more closely related than the pedestrian history or philosophy of science would comfortably admit with their story of the triumphant emergence of enlightened, rational natural science from the obscure mysticism of alchemy and its ilk.

Today, Newton’s interests in alchemy, astrology, and labours to interpret Biblical prophecy are better, if not well, known. What is less known (but not to readers of Yates) are Descartes’ and Francis Bacon’s interest if somewhat unclear involvement in Rosicrucianism. This mutual implication of Magic and Science (and, by extension, technology) is happily the topic of serious research, a good primer of which can be found at independent scholar Andreas Sommers’ Forbidden Histories (which can be followed, too, on Facebook). Sommers’ Essential Readings is a small library sufficient to deconstruct in the rigorous sense the Science/Magic (or as Sommers terms it, the Natural Magic / Scientific Naturalism) binary.

Interested parties are also urged to check out the The Renaissance Mathematicus, which regularly and with much gusto takes the piss out of received ideas about the emergence of science from the Humanist dogmas of the Renaissance….

Pursuant to my critique of Loeb and his kind who identify intelligence with human, instrumental reason, the recently-published volume, The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, was brought to my attention (synchronicitously or otherwise…). Edited by Dennis McKenna, the book collects short essays, narratives and poetry by authors from the humanities, social, and natural sciences on plants and their interaction with humans. YES! Magazine published an excerpt from Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s contribution, “Hearing the Language of Trees”, wherein she writes:

The story of intelligences other than our own is one of continual expansion. I am not aware of a single research study that demonstrates that other beings are dumber than we think. Octopi solve puzzles, chickadees create language, crows make tools, rats feel anxiety, elephants mourn, parrots do calculus, apes read symbols, nematodes navigate, and honeybees dance the results of cost-benefit analysis of sucrose rewards like an economic ballet. Even the slime mold can learn a maze, enduring toxic obstacles to obtain the richest reward. The blinders are coming off, and the definition of intelligence expands every time we ask the question.

The ability to efficiently sense, identify, locate, and capture resources needed in a complex and variable environment requires sophisticated information processing and decision making. Intelligence is today thought of as “adaptively variable behavior,” which changes in response to signals coming from the environment.

Kimmerer’s position here harmonizes sweetly with that taken by my last post and Justin E. Smith’s argument concerning intelligence I condense there.

Kimmerer’s Indigenous perspective is one where “human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world[;] [o]ther beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons”, all of whom share “a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species”, a worldview at curious odds with that one chronicled by, among others, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, whose stories relate encounters with humanoid sky gods, giants, little people, and aliens among indigenous people. One is tempted to wonder why a world already inhabited by manifold intelligent creatures, intelligence freed from an anthropomorphic fetish, contains, too, nonhuman but nevertheless all-too anthropomorphic intelligences….

The Xenophobia of Avi Loeb’s Interstellar Xenia

Anyone struck by the recent announcement of Christopher Mellon’s and Luis Elizondo’s being appointed research affiliates to Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project may have been curious enough to visit the project’s website, where they may have been tempted to read an article linked there, “Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests“, by project head Loeb.

Loeb proposes that “we” (who are we? Homo Sapiens? Americans? Harvard faculty?…) adopt the classical Greek custom of Xenia, the hospitality extended to strangers as typified in the Homeric epics, except in an expanded, “interstellar”, sense: “Interstellar Xenia implies that we should welcome autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence, which arrive to our vicinity from far away.” Why? “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.”

A problem with Loeb’s proposal is evident, first, in the example of mundane hospitality he offers and the exosocial implication he draws from it:

On a recent breezy evening, I noticed an unfamiliar visitor standing in front of my home and asked for his identity. He explained that he used to live in my home half a century ago. I welcomed him to our backyard where he noted that his father buried their cat and placed a tombstone engraved with its name. We went there and found the tombstone….

If we find visitors, they might provide us with a new perspective about the history of our back yard. In so doing, they would bring a deeper meaning to our life within the keen historic friendship that we owe them in our shared space.

Loeb’s anecdote is likely chosen as much for its concreteness and emotional appeal as for whatever features it might be said to share with a hypothetical encounter with ET. That being said, the scenario presents the encounter between Homo Sapiens and an extraterrestrial Other as one of immediate (i.e., unproblematic) mutual recognition (like that between Loeb and the “unfamiliar visitor”), which is both telling and fateful.

By what warrant does Loeb assume the unproblematic recognition of or by this Other? Aside from the obvious obstacle, that, while Loeb and his visitor, or the stranger and his host in Bronze Age Greece, share the same culture, which an interstellar visitor would not, consider the scenario depicted in the science-fiction film Europa Report. A team of astronauts is sent to explore the moon of Jupiter named in the film’s title, where it discovers under the ice a bioluminescent creature resembling an earthly squid or octopus. Does the creature use its bioluminescence to hunt or attract prey in the dark oceans under Europa’s ice, or, being “intelligent“, is it its means of communication? And, if the creature were “intelligent”, how would the human astronauts know and how would the creature perceive in the astronauts their “intelligence”? Why would the astronauts, rather than, say, their capsule, even be the focus of the creature’s curiosity? Even so shopworn a science-fiction franchise as Star Trek (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) envisioned a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial species blindly indifferent to all human civilization on earth in the search for its own Cetacean kind.

Even if we set aside the specific case of our encountering extraterrestrial intelligent life, the same problem persists. The Galileo Project’s first focus is the search for near-earth “extraterrestrial equipment“, whether a functioning artificially intelligent probe or piece of detritus. In any case, we must be able to recognize the artifact as an artifact, precisely the point of contention around ‘Oumuamua: was it a natural object or an artificial one, as Loeb et al. argue? Again, science fiction has touched on just this challenge, as the ability to perceive a piece of alien technology as such is pivotal to the plot of Star Trek: the Motion Picture. (Loeb seems more a fan of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact or its film version). The problem becomes even more intractable if we take seriously speculations that the very structures of the cosmos or its laws may be artifacts.

So, whether our interstellar interloper be a piece of technology, “intelligent” or otherwise, or biological, we are a far ways from the easy hospitality Loeb was able to offer his visitor, as we may not even know we are in the presence of a visitor and that stranger may not recognize they are in the presence of a potential host. How is it, then, that Loeb overlooks these grave obstacles to mutual recognition in his advocating Interstellar Xenia? I propose that Loeb, like all those obsessed with, fascinated by, or or otherwise inclined to indulge the idea of extraterrestrial, intelligent life, is on the lookout for an anthropomorphic “intelligence”, failing to recognize, at the same time, that encountering an exo-tic, extraterrestrial life form is an instance of interspecies communication.

One needn’t travel to an imagined Europa to discover the grave flaws in Loeb’s perspective. First, restricting “intelligence” to human intelligence in general or that teleological, problem-solving, technical intelligence, instrumental reason, is demonstrably perverse, de facto and de jure. One need only glance at the growing body of research into animal and plant intelligence to see that Homo Sapiens already inhabits a planet teeming with intelligent, nonhuman life. Philosophical reflection on the concept of intelligence, too, dissolves the identification of intelligence with human, instrumental reason. Justin E. Smith makes this case in both a lively and readable manner that I encourage interested parties to read for themselves; here, I attempt to condense his case…. Smith explains

…the only idea we are in fact able to conjure of what intelligent beings elsewhere may be like is one that we extrapolate directly from our idea of our own intelligence. And what’s worse, in this case the scientists are generally no more sophisticated than the folk….

One obstacle to opening up our idea of what might count as intelligence to beings or systems that do not or cannot “pass our tests” is that, with this criterion abandoned, intelligence very quickly comes to look troublingly similar to adaptation, which in turn always seems to threaten tautology. That is, an intelligent arrangement of things would seem simply to be the one that best facilitates the continued existence of the thing in question; so, whatever exists is intelligent….

it may in fact be useful to construe intelligence in just this way: every existing life-form is equally intelligent, because equally well-adapted to the challenges the world throws its way. This sounds audacious, but the only other possible construal of intelligence I can see is the one that makes it out to be “similarity to us”…

Ubiquitous living systems on Earth, that is —plants, fungi, bacteria, and of course animals—, manifest essentially the same capacities of adaptation, of interweaving themselves into the natural environment in order to facilitate their continued existence, that in ourselves we are prepared to recognize as intelligence….

There is in sum no good reason to think that evolutionary “progress” must involve the production of artifices, whether in external tools or in representational art. In fact such productions might just as easily be seen as compensations for a given life form’s inadequacies in facing challenges its environment throws at it. An evolutionally “advanced” life form might well be the one that, being so well adapted, or so well blended into its environment, simply has no need of technology at all.

But such a life form will also be one that has no inclination to display its ability to ace our block-stacking tests or whatever other proxies of intelligence we strain to devise. Such life forms are, I contend, all around us, all the time. Once we convince ourselves this is the situation here on Earth, moreover, the presumption that our first encounter with non-terrestrial life forms will be an encounter with spaceship-steering technologists comes to appear as a risible caricature.

Both fact and reason, then, call into serious question the very intelligibility of Loeb’s imagined, hospitable meeting, for there are no grounds to decide just what organism, extraterrestrial or otherwise, would count as an Other for us to greet (and vice versa: on what grounds would Homo Sapiens be picked out of all the other species on earth to be that Other’s Other?). It’s almost as if Loeb has taken his clue from mythology, not only that found in the epic accounts of xenia, but the Biblical Creation story, wherein Man is made in the image of God and given sovereignty over all other creatures, or the myth of Prometheus who gifts humankind fire or inventive ingenuity. Such a metaphysical idea grants Homo Sapiens a special characteristic (“intelligence”), which is then imagined to be possessed by other, similarly “ensouled” and gifted extraterrestrials we hope not merely to encounter but to meet.

This hope, however, is futile, as the only creature that meets the criteria we have set is ourselves. Were the problem grasped in its more thorough-going form, as one of interspecies communication, then we might turn our attention to all those other organisms with whom we share the earth and perhaps reflect on the nature and extent of the hospitality we extend to them and may perhaps be said to owe them. With this thought, the perversity of why we should extend hospitality to “autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence” is revealed: “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.” First, Loeb narrows down civilization to its technology (as if technology were somehow meaningfully abstractable from the society and culture that produce it), then he restricts the interaction to what we, the hosts, might gain (“knowledge”), twisting his central idea of xenia out of all resemblance to the Hellenic custom he invokes, which is characterized in the first instance by the generosity of the host.

Loeb’s vision here is, first, narcissistic (i.e., it sees intelligence only as human intelligence, which he in turn seems to restrict to technical ingenuity, at that) and, second, self-centredly grasping (in conceiving of xenia only in terms of what we, the hosts, have to gain from our guests, “knowledge”). The supreme irony of Loeb’s position is revealed by this insistence that the discovery of a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization would precipitate a “Copernican revolution” that would disabuse humankind of its delusion that it is the only “intelligent” (and, hence, the most intelligent) species in its galactic neighbourhood, inspiring it to adopt instead a “cosmic modesty“, when in fact Loeb has conceived human instrumental reason as “intelligence” itself, the archetypal standard by which any other organism is determined to be intelligent or not, i.e., his stance is fundamentally anthropocentric. The narcissism of this conception entails that we will only ever be able greet and extend hospitality to ourselves. Loeb’s stranger is not strange enough….

Sightings: Monday 1 November 2021: Plus ça change…

As I observed in the last Sightings post, ufology as that myth-of-things-seen-in the-skies, despite apparent, dramatic developments (novelties), seems to orbit in an eternal-recurrence-of-the-same, which is characteristic of myth as such; myth posits an eternal (ever recurring) order…. That being said, some recent developments caught my attention.

The Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts (headed by Avi Loeb) recently named Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo as Research Affiliates. (I assume these two names and their respective place in recent ufology are not unfamiliar.) I’ve elaborated a number of critiques of the thinking underwriting Loeb’s views concerning extraterrestrial technological artifacts (the most developed can be read here). However ideologically invested Loeb’s ideas, their scientific value remains an open question, depending on Project Galileo’s ultimate—empirical—findings. But it’s precisely the project’s scientific reputation that is thrown into question by its affiliation with Mellon and Elizondo, given their respective backgrounds in intelligence and their overt statements and innuendos concerning UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). Given Mellon’s and Elizondo’s enthusiastic participation in the drama of “Disclosure”, the scientifically-minded might be excused for wondering just how much of value the two can bring to, e.g., “assessing the societal implications of the data, if any extraterrestrial technological signatures or artifacts are discovered.” One’s tempted to imagine that once History’s The Secret of Skin Walker Ranch has run its inevitable course it might not be replaced by a new reality series, The Galileo Project….

The appointment of Mellon and Elizondo to a research project searching for artifacts of extraterrestrial technology underlines, again, the near hegemony a certain thinking about extraterrestrial life (and, by extension and most importantly, life on earth) holds in both the popular and more specialized imaginations, e.g., that of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers. Corey S. Powell’s Aeon article “The search for alien tech” reveals both in how SETI research has recently expanded in the wake of the discovery of exoplanets and most acutely in his own reflexive (unconscious) rhetoric just how strong the grip of this thinking is.

Powell describes how “each age has featured its own version [of] yearning for contact with life from beyond, always anchored to the technological themes of the day”. Roughly in the latter half of last century SETI was essentially the search for a demonstrably alien, artificial signal somewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, whether visible (e.g., laser) or invisible (e.g., radio). However, with the discovery of how to detect and study exoplanets, the search was able to broaden its horizon to include the chemical fingerprints of life and technology, bio- and technosignatures. These latter include, for example, the specific light reflected from solar panels, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, “highly versatile compounds that are used as solvents, refrigerants, foaming agents and aerosol propellants”), or “nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of combustion or high-temperature manufacturing,” namely, the kinds of technosignatures human activity leaves in earth’s atmosphere. However, as Powell remarks “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all.” The search for technosignatures, therefore, expands to include “mechanical technosignatures”, such as a Dyson Sphere, or the kinds of artifacts The Galileo Project is on the hunt for.

There is an irony, however, in, on the one hand, admitting that “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all” and, on the other, the tellingly offhand comparison Powell makes discussing technosignatures:

We spew pollutants, belch factory heat during the day, and light up our cities at night. We can’t help it, any more than bacteria can help emitting methane. By extension, any advanced aliens could be expected to visibly alter their planet as an inevitable byproduct of creating a manufactured, industrial civilization.

Powell’s comparison levels the difference between the waste products of an organism’s metabolism and those of social, techno-industrial processes, human or alien, whose societies are thereby (if not therefore) imagined (if not thought) to be organisms writ large. Powell’s rhetoric here (con)fuses the natural and the social, natural history and history proper (Adorno’s critique of the distinction notwithstanding).

Powell’s rhetoric is part-and-parcel with that thinking that governs SETI in general and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs, the (Platonic) idea that life is not shaped only by biology but by some teleology that launches it on a vector to develop the kind of intelligence homo sapiens imagines it possesses, which, in turn, necessarily expresses itself as tool-use and technological development along the lines laid out by “First World” historians (who imagine that the world’s present-day “advanced” societies represent a goal or end of history…). Astrobiologist Jason Wright et al. keep strange company when they imagine alien technology millions or billions of years old (and presumably as much in advance of our own); Maitreya Raël tells us, too, that his Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us….

More gravely is how this confusion of natural history and history proper evacuates the possibility of even thinking of self-directed social change (societies are ultimately as mindlessly instinctual as colonies of bacteria) and thereby serves a politically “conservative”, reactionary function. David Wengrow makes a not unrelated point with regard to how reigning, inherited narratives of cultural development work as myths (there’s that word again) to drain away the potential for even imagining alternate futures or change. Wengrow rehearses this restraining view of human history as follows:

We could live in societies of equals, this story goes, when we were few, our lives and needs simple. In this view, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Big means complex, which involves hierarchy, exploitation and the competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we are left to draw the obvious dismal conclusions. There is no sense fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our grow-or-die economy, what hope do we really have of making progress? [my emphasis]

Or, as Fredric Jameson so memorably put it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Happily, as Wengrow points out and explains “nothing about this familiar conception of human history is actually true.”

The myth that possesses the imagination of believers in or speculators about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations is as scientifically and philosophically problematic as it is socially consequential. On the one hand, we don’t even know how life appeared on earth, but what we do know, however, is that its evolution has been a precarious, chance-ridden, unpredictable process. On the other, the story of human culture and society is even more aleatoric and varied, underwritten by what Wengrow terms “the spark of political creativity” or philosophers, more generally, “freedom”. Accounts of life, “intelligence”, “development”, or “progress” that merely posit the (self-serving) self-understanding of one culture on earth as the outcome of some natural, necessary, universal process serve to only reify, naturalize and entrench, the social relations of that culture, now at a moment when its unnaturalness, borne out by the daily mounting evidence of its unsustainability (to put it in the most “objective” terms), is most in need of unmasking.

“Telepathy”, “Specters”, and Derrida: a note on George Hansen

Despite the feverish belief in Disclosure heightened in some by the most recent flurry of institutional and media interest in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), the UFO phenomenon arguably remains a recalcitrant mystery. Given that that mystery has been so stubborn for over seven decades, it is unsurprising that some curious parties have turned to philosophy to help clarify if not resolve the matter.

I’m unaware just how much activity online brings philosophy to bear. It was Rich Reynolds’ attempted application of some of Sartre’s thinking that led to my first engagement with one of his ufological blogs (the current is UFO Conjectures). In terms of print culture, David J. Moore and Adrian Rudnyk have written books, Evolutionary Metaphors: UFOs, New Existentialism, and the Future Paradigm and The Assessment: The Arrival of Extraterrestrials respectively, that could be described as philosophical works proper. Many more authors draw on philosophy as part of their efforts. Jeffrey J. Kripal and Whitley Strieber refer to Immanuel Kant and Husserlian phenomenology in their coauthored book The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained is Real. Robbie Graham uses Jean Baudrillard to illuminate the ways the UFO becomes hyperreal through the reproduction of its image, cinematically and otherwise, in his Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies. And M. J. Banias (The UFO People: a curious culture) and George P. Hansen (The Trickster and the Paranormal) both seek to bring to bear the thinking of Jacques Derrida, specifically his first intervention into political philosophy, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International.

It’s Hansen’s reading and application of Derrida to the field of parapsychology that I want to address here, for reasons as synchronicitous as personal. During this most recent pandemic, Hansen’s online presence seemed to seek me out, whether a Zoom “graduate seminar” on his Trickster Theory or a recent interview (Part 1 here; Part 2 here). Moreover, I’ve been curious as to why his thinking seems to be held in such high esteem by those interested in such matters (he was referred to as “Guru Hansen” in a recent Facebook comment thread). And his characteristic, provocative haughtiness (or so it seems to me) when it comes to institutions, such as the academy, piqued me to look into what he had to say about the field of what he calls “literary criticism”, one I’ve been not unacquainted with for forty years. I can take encouragement from his own invitation in the Preface to his book that readers need not read it “front to back” (16) and that one might well begin “with a topic of personal interest.”

To be fair, Hansen devotes all of eight pages of his 564-page book to “deconstructionism” (sic) and only some paragraphs of those pages to Derrida. Though he does quote de Saussure, de Man, and Barthes, he seems to have drawn his understanding of what the cognoscenti call “Theory” from the secondary sources characteristic of the initial (very muddled) reception of structuralism and post-structuralism or those that are downright hostile, e.g., Page Smith’s Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (378) and David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (379). It would be a tiresome, thankless labour to comb through those eight pages, criticizing all the errors and misrepresentations. Should satisfaction be demanded, I will gladly meet the challenger on the digital field where we might wield our respective keyboards. However, here, let me address Hansen’s misreadings of two of Derrida’s texts, “Telepathy” (most recently collected in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume 1, pp. 226-261) and the aforementioned Specters of Marx.

Regarding “Telepathy”, right off Hansen reveals what the hermeneuticist would call his “prejudices” (Vorurteilen in German): he observes, “To [Derrida’s] credit, he at least briefly addressed the paranormal…” (379). It is easy to understand why someone with an interest in the paranormal reading a text titled “Telepathy” might assume the topic is parapsychological, but such a working hypothesis is less trustworthy in the case of a writer as original as Derrida; the educated guess that Derrida is venturing some thoughts on a parapsychological topic needs to be tested against what the remainder of that enticingly-titled text says. Hansen is at least honest enough to admit that “Telepathy” “is extremely odd”. For Hansen, Derrida’s text “is a confused hodgepodge of fragments from Freud (letters, notes, etc.).” Puzzled if not stonewalled by this perplexing text, Hansen turns to a secondary work by the translator of “Telepathy” Nicholas Royle, Telepathy and Literature: Essays on the Reading Mind: “It is frightening. Reading Derrida is frightening. As he [Derrida?] says in ‘Telepathy’, he scares other people and he scares himself.” Hansen concludes that

…grossly ignorant of the paranormal and its implications [,] [w]hen he ventured into that foreign territory, being oblivious to any useful scholarship, he lunged for the only thing he knew relevant: the antiquated writings of Freud…Obviously unsettled by what he encountered, he was unable to articulate it.

Nevertheless, Derrida’s article attests to the importance of telepathy. But the topic renders him almost incoherent; he doesn’t know what to do with it. Royle commented [sic] that “Derrida implies that a theory of telepathy, especially insofar as his ‘own’ text promotes the possibility of such a theory, is inextricably linked to the question of writing.” Royle proposed [sic] “‘Telepathy as a name for literature as discursive formation.” Derrida and Royle seemed [sic] to recognize telepathy as important for communication, but they were [sic] at a loss as to how to think about it. (380)

Hansen’s reading is extremely odd. Given that “Telepathy” is a collection of ten, dated texts, from 9 July 1979 to 15 July 1979, it is difficult to understand why he reads the text as a whole as “a confused hodgepodge of fragments from Freud” (my emphasis). (Perhaps Hansen means the fragments often quote “from Freud”, which they do). More importantly, Derrida himself makes clear in the first endnote that the ten texts were intended to be included in the first section of The Postcard: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond, whose first section, “Envois” is composed of the same kind of short texts, dated 3 June 1977 to 30 August 1979, which Derrida tells us might be considered “the remainders of a recently destroyed correspondence” (3) (obviously not “from Freud”!). It’s not that Derrida essays the topic of telepathy as a paranormal phenomenon, grasping at Freud for some belated guidance, but that “Telepathy” is a fragment of a larger text, composed itself of fragments, which (as is Derrida’s wont) probe or essay ‘telepathy’, especially as it is articulated by Freud (See note 7 to “Telepathy” in Psyche), as part of Derrida’s larger deconstructive project to think and write about language, writing, and literature in novel terms (e.g., telepathy) not indebted to the “metaphysical” inheritance, to (re)think ‘telepathy’ as “inextricably linked to the question of writing” and “as a name for literature as a discursive formation”. Little surprise, moreover, Derrida should allude to Freud so in sections of a book intended for a volume subtitled “from Socrates to Freud and Beyond”. It’s not that Derrida is “at a loss as to how to think about” telepathy, but that Hansen, apparently ignorant (grossly or otherwise) of Derrida’s work up to and including The Postcard (admittedly a difficult, perplexing book) and ignoring the context of the text he seeks to understand, shoehorns “Telepathy” into his own (parapsychological) categories to generate a skewed and unsurprisingly unsatisfying if not damning reading.

Hansen’s reading of Specters of Marx suffers from the same errors. He is adamant that “it’s very clear if you read Derrida” that Specters is “all about ghosts” in the paranormal sense. (Hansen makes this claim between the 12:00 and 14:00 marks of the second half of the podcast interview linked above). But, in this case, Hansen’s misinterpretation is even more egregious than in the case of the admittedly obscure “Telepathy”. Derrida states in the “note on the text” that precedes even the dedication that the book is an “augmented, clarified”, and supplemented version of “a lecture given in two sessions”, which “opened an international colloquium… under the ambiguous title ‘Whither Marxism?’ in which one may hear beneath the question ‘Where is Marxism going?’ another question: ‘Is Marxism dying?'”. Moreover, aside from being titled Specters of Marx (with its allusion to the first line of The Communist Manifesto), the book is subtitled “The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning [an allusion to Derrida’s work of the same name], and the New International [an allusion to the history of the workers’ movement]”. However original and startling a thinker, it beggars the imagination that on this occasion Derrida would deliver a plenary address with this title—on the paranormal.

A couple of passages from the book’s first part, the exordium, lend credence to reading Specters as an intervention, however unorthodox, into the field of political philosophy at a crucial moment in history (immediately following the collapse of “really existing socialism” and the consequent triumphalism of Western democracies that proclaimed “the end of history”) rather than an out-of-place discourse on the paranormal. Derrida first raises the topic of ghosts after the exordium’s opening paragraphs that probe the assertion “I would like to learn to live finally”.

If it—learning to live—remains to be done, it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between two, and between all the “two’s” one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost. So it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such. (xviii) [my emphasis]

Not only because it is taken out of context, but also because much of it defers (readers of Derrida will understand why I emphasize that word) its sense to what is to come in the remainder of the talk the passage is far from immediately clear let alone understandable. What some readers might be tempted to take as clear are the emphasized claims, that “the spectral is not” and “is never present as such”, reducing them to some banal statement to the effect “ghosts do not exist.” But, again, readers of Derrida will recognize these two sentences allude to Martin Heidegger’s project of the Destruction of the History of Ontology (deconstruction being the French translation of the German Destruktion). Heidegger famously posed again the question he claimed drove the philosophical reflections of Plato and Aristotle, “What is being?”. He argued that, from antiquity to his own time, that question had been answered as “Being is presence”. Whatever Derrida hopes to think by ‘the spectral’, he seeks to think this other side of that traditional, (what Heidegger and Derrida termed) metaphysical answer to the question of Being. The spectral is not, i.e., it is not to be thought as present. Moreover, the spectral, aside from never being “present as such” is not to be thought as “substance, essence, nor existence”, all names for being-as-presence at different moments in the history of philosophy. My point here is that despite Derrida’s deploying terms here translated as ghosts, spirits, and the spectral, any immediate understanding of them in a conventional (e.g., parapsychological) sense is hasty and even cautioned against by the way they are written about.

A relatively long passage on the facing page begins to maker clearer what ghosts and the spectral might have to do with the fall of communism, the consequent new world order, ethics (“to learn to live”), and politics.

It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it, from the moment that no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born. No justice—let us not say no law and once again we are not speaking here of laws—seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, with that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead. (xix)

Here, Derrida is attempting to think ethics and politics beyond the realm of the present, the living, both to do justice to those who have come before and those who are yet to come. This injunction, to “disjoin the living present” (the epigraph for the entire book is taken from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint”), is uncanny when precisely the question of what we owe future generations is an urgent matter. Being, here, is no longer present, for the dead and the to-be-born, like the spectral, are not. Specters of Marx, the way the history of philosophy forged itself over time linking the terms substance, essence, being, etc., thinks its way with spectre, ghost, spirit, as thought in Marx and Shakespeare and others, a manner of writing thinking familiar to readers of Derrida, one true to the differance (difference and deferral) that might be said to govern language, writing, and thought. The “specter” in Derrida’s title is a rhetorical vehicle, not a reference to a paranormal entity, however mysterious.

However gravely mistaken I propose Hansen to be about Derrida’s thinking, what I argue should in no way to be taken to denigrate, devalue, or otherwise call into question the remainder of The Trickster and the Paranormal or Trickster Theory in general. As I write above, I was piqued by the force of Hansen’s maintaining that “Telepathy” and Specters address paranormal topics, a dogmatic assertiveness I felt called for inspection. Ironically, it is Derrida who plays the part of a kind of necromancer in these texts, reviving the signs ‘telepathy’, ‘specter’, ‘ghost’, etc. from the rigor mortis of unthinking, reflexive everyday use (e.g., the paranormal one), inspiring their dead letters with a new spirit, sentencing them not to death but a new life and new meaning. But as Hansen would likely be the first to acknowledge, such uncanny work eludes quotidian understanding.

Sightings: Monday October 4 2021: A Not-so Great Silence

Things have been so quiet here at the Skunkworks (six weeks without a post) it prompted a tactful and warmly-received inquiry as to our well-being!

Posting here has slowed for a number of reasons. Materially, after nearly two years without a functioning library, the custom-made bookcases ordered over a year ago are almost finally installed, which has entailed the sorting, schlepping, alphabetizing, and shelving of more than 2,400 books. The ufological library’s soon no longer being a pile of books in the corner will at least facilitate a return to some of the projects undertaken here, e.g., a continuation of the study of the books cited in Jung’s Flying Saucers, categorized as “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”, along with some tardy notices if not reviews of recent ufological and ufological poetry books….

Admittedly, other concerns have imposed themselves. Apart from the more philosophical, ideology-critical reflection that goes on here, the raison d’être of the Skunkworks is to make public (and to make me publicly accountable for) the on-going composition of the mytho-ufological epic, Orthoteny (e.g., the last post, “Alexander Hamilton’s Prototypical Cattle Mutilation Tale” that shared a part of that epic, from On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery). Editing and submitting at least two other, unrelated poetry manuscripts and their component poems have also eclipsed for the moment much of the work that goes on here at the Skunkworks. Moreover, readers who recall the last two “Sightings” (4 July and 26 June) will also likely remember how these posts’ concerns, however related to the UFO mythology, were as much if not more the climate emergency (I’m working on an essay about the belief in near-term human extinction) and the ongoing liquidation, cultural and physical, of Canada’s First Peoples (30 September 2021 was the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada).

But, more acutely, is the striking irony that as the phenomenon wins more “official” legitimacy (whether from various branches of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment or even scientifically, in the form of Loeb et al.’s Galileo Project) its cultural significance is all the more staid. As the cognoscenti have observed, in terms of governmental interest, we’ve been here before, nor does the Galileo Project push forward or, more importantly, deepen the research of SETI. How many times need I reiterate the ideological underpinnings of the search for technosignatures or extraterrestrial technological artifacts?

Indeed, these recent, dramatic (at least among some circles) developments, within the modern (post-1947) history of the phenomenon, seem an instance of an “eternal recurrence of the same”, that characteristic of myth that sees history as a pattern of eternally repeating structures. (Little wonder the circularity of the flying saucer reminded Jung of the mandala…). This aspect of the development of the mythology seems to have reached a limit point with the publication of Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity. As I have argued the book seems a repressed work of science fiction, a provocative characterization of the UFO mythology itself (a discourse whose literality is unstable, questionable and problematic). It’s as if at the moment when the literality of the phenomenon seems to be approaching institutional acceptance (a moment in the unfolding of Disclosure?), its symbolic, mythological (if not ideological) significance presses against that literality to near a bursting point.

The “Disclosure” we are pursuing here is the presentation if not revelation of just that Symbolic, ideological content of the UFO mythology, “the myth of things seen in the skies”, and therein and thereby the myth (ideology) that underwrites, sustains and inspires the civilization and its worldview that finds it easier to imagine the end of the world than its own transformation, no small task and one, like poetry, alienated and distant from the march of “current events”.

Alexander Hamilton’s Prototypical Cattle Mutilation Tale

Over at Mysterious Universe, Brent Swancer shares a collection of premodern tales of cattle mutilation, among them the prototypical if not archetypal story told by Alexander Hamilton during the Great Airship Mystery of 1896/7. Spencer’s reminding us of this report opens the door to my sharing my own poetic rendering of the encounter, one of the many smaller poems that compose a long poem On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery, part of that larger, “epic” project whose working title is Orthoteny.

Since WordPress does violence to the lineation of poetry, I post the poem, below, as a PDF.

Sightings: Sunday 4 July 2021: The Great Divide, the Climate Emergency, and UFOs/UAP

One fairly consistent observation among American UFO people in the frothing wake of media attention to the recently released Preliminary Assessment on UAP is how the topic is now not only taken relatively seriously but how this interest is shared across the Great Divide in American politics and culture (Republican vs. Democrat, Conservative vs. Liberal), both among politicians (e.g., Marco Rubio (R) and Harry Reid (D)) and television networks (Fox and CNN). Now, Marik von Rennenkampff, an opinion columnist for The Hill, proposes an even stronger possible role for the topic in his piece How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation.

Von Rennenkampff argues that “the UFO mystery could ultimately transcend the deep polarization of the post-Trump era,” regardless of what Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) ultimately turn out to be. On one reading, the Preliminary Assessment leaves it open that, as President Trump’s final director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe claims, “there are technologies that we don’t have and frankly that we are not capable of defending against” or, that as Chris Mellon, et al. maintain, these technologies may be extraterrestrial. “If Ratcliffe is correct and analysts ruled out mundane explanations or advanced U.S. and adversarial technology, the government’s high-level assessments would fuel a remarkable discussion, drawing in Americans from across the political divide,” thinks von Rennenkampff. Alternatively, “if a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters, the upshot is that America will [still] be less politically and culturally fractured,” precisely because of “the intense bipartisan interest” this latest iteration of “the UFO mystery” will have inspired.

Von Rennenkampff seems caught up by an enthusiasm for the phenomenon that has clouded his reasoning. On the one hand, one has to wonder how serious the public interest in “the UFO mystery” is. Surely, some believe UAP are “real” as fervently as they do the earth revolves around the sun or the earth is flat, but many, imaginably, even among the roughly half the American public who will say “that UFOs reported by people in the military are likely evidence of intelligent life outside Earth” do so because there is nothing at stake in entertaining the idea. On the other, Rennenkampff is correct to posit that should a large majority of the American populace get taken by the question of the nature of UAP America will be less culturally fractured…on precisely this one point, but it hardly follows that the country will be less politically divided on questions of, e.g., reproductive or labour rights, race relations, gun control, the division of church and state, the environment, taxation, or foreign policy.

At the end of his column, von Rennenkampff writes something that can be read as his dimly realizing the vacuousness of his own thesis: “As large swathes of the country face a drought of ‘biblical proportions’ and all-time temperature records are demolished, an unlikely shot at uncovering ‘breakthrough technology’ is worth eroding the deep fault lines dividing America.” Von Rennenkampff’s very rhetoric undermines his proposal. A drought of “biblical proportions” would, in a country with as many fundamentalist Christians as the U.S., make a profound, urgent impression on just that populace keyed to perceive it, a demographic more likely to respond to such a sign from heaven than lights in the sky. Furthermore, to “erode” a fault line would be to deepen it, unless the author has in mind some biblical deluge that would wash away the earth on either side. His very language testifies against the spuriousness of what he intends.

Moreover, the contrast between the gravity of undeniable, sustained drought and killer heat and the flight of fancy of that “unlikely shot” is stunning. Von Rennenkampff’s wager seems to be that UAP are “real”, that they represent either an earthly or unearthly “breakthrough technology” (at least aeronautically), a technology that can be harnessed to practically address the climate emergency, and that the public might be tricked into uniting to tackle this undeniable existential threat by the fascinating lure of a seemingly mysterious technology (ours or theirs or theirs) when it fails to acknowledge what in fact is right in front of its eyes wreaking death and havoc. And if he and we lose this wager, and “a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters,” what then?

The bitter irony is that Americans are unable to come together in the face of a relatively concrete public health emergency, to agree on and follow the public health measures, e.g., masking and vaccination, to bring the present pandemic under control, much less to come to terms with the reality posed by drought, dangerously high temperatures, and increasingly powerful and destructive tropical storms and hurricanes. If Americans can’t unite in the face of such immediate, dire threats, the political potential of UAP is a will o’ the wisp.

In a not unrelated vein, some readers of last week’s Sightings may have been mystified or miffed by my linking and referring to a leaked draft of the latest IPCC report in the context of and in contrast to the big ufological news of that week, the release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP. The comments on a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans”, however, included some very telling and pertinent remarks that are more assured of the assessment’s implications: “We now know that humans or non-humans have objects that can move around at very high speeds without giving off a significant heat signature”, and

The US govt just confirmed the existence of UFOs. They are either human or non-human (i.e., not swamp gas, ‘system errors’ etc). These UFOs move in ways that defy currently known technology…. ‘States and businesses’ could get on with researching this now known direction of technological travel,

and most tellingly, in light of the “recent UFO disclosure…We now know for sure the technology exists [to mitigate green house gas emissions]—time to see what it can do and how it might reduce the environmental footprint of humanity”.

Here is a demographic convinced that humankind has either developed or encountered “a breakthrough technology” adaptable to solving its energy and environmental challenges. But its seeing this technology as a way to solving the climate emergency is as muddle-headed as von Rennenkampff’s wager. If the technology is nonhuman, then the possibilities of our exploiting it for our own ends are vanishingly small (the claims of Michael Salla and Steven Greer notwithstanding); if the technology is human (which the Assessment is far from affirming), it doesn’t follow it is even applicable or scalable to solving global warming. Both fanciful hopes are akin to the more mundane if speculative technofixes proposed by geoengineers: they all fixate on development’s solving the problems that attend development when the painful truth of the matter is that we already possess immediately deployable ways to reduce both green house gas emission and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (e.g., the hundred plus solutions set out by Project Drawdown) whose primary obstacle to being implemented is political, namely those parties with vested interests in maintaining an ecocidal status quo from which they profit (and who are among the first to promote technofixes that leave social relations favourable to their flourishing untouched): they are, in a word, ideological.

What’s remarkable about these two instances of “the UFO imaginary” is how their intended touching down on real world concerns is in actuality a flight into fantasy. The overwhelming, seeming intractability of urgent, real world problems makes some of us, understandably, avert our gaze heavenward, seeking answers that cost us nothing to these problems that seem to threaten everything.

Faster than a speeding light sail: a note on Avi Loeb’s thesis concerning the artificiality of ‘Oumuamua

In a recent discussion with a friend about Avi Loeb’s hypothesis that the object ‘Oumuamua displayed behaviours consistent with its being an artifact of nonhuman technology, namely a light sail, one problem with the consistency of his thesis struck me.

A root problem with Loeb’s thinking that I have noted at length here is the unproblematic spontaneity of the very idea of nonhuman, extraterrestrial technology of the kind Loeb proposes ‘Oumuamua might be. It’s precisely the way the idea seems unquestionable, even as a speculation, that I argue is a mark of its being ideological and calling for scrutiny. (Interested readers are encouraged to click on the ‘Avi Loeb’ tag to access previous posts on this topic).

However, aside from “merely” philosophical reflection if not critique of Loeb’s thesis, one might propose a problem with its internal consistency. If we suppose ‘Oumuamua to be a light sail, then it must have originated, however long ago, from a relatively advanced extraterrestrial civilization. If said civilization were sufficiently sophisticated to imagine, design, and manufacture a light sail, is it not likely the same civilization had at the same time if not earlier developed a form of artificial communication that employed some frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, e.g., radio? If this same civilization were to possess some such communications technology, then it seems arguable that signals from this civilization would have reached earth long in advance of a light sail, given their relative velocities. In the same way, long before any light sail or subluminal spacecraft from earth will reach another solar system, all the EM emissions from our communications technology will have reached that solar system long in advance. Therefore, subject to a whole raft of assumptions, admittedly, imagining a light sail arriving in our solar system suggests that signals, intentional or otherwise, from the home civilization of said light sail will have alerted us to that civilization’s existence long in advance of the arrival of their spacecraft.

Just a thought, and one I doubt is original to me. (Nor should the implications of this argument for the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis for the origin of UFOs/UAP be underestimated…).

Sightings: Saturday 26 June 2021: Contact, the Great Silence, and the Preliminary Assessment

Amid the breathless suspense leading up to Friday’s release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP, I spun a discussion thread with a persistent interlocutor around the theory that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft, aka the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis or ETH. In the course of that back and forth, he linked a YouTube video on the matter. Aside from the ETH, the video’s interviewees pursued two lines of thought that touched on other, more urgent concerns…

“Culture Shock”: Kent Monkman’s “The Scream”

It’s a commonplace in ufology and the more scientifically-formal search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to contemplate the consequences of contact between humankind and a much more technologically-advanced extraterrestrial species (not race) in terms of that between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, etc. For example, Tyler Cowen, a student of “Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico”, making the comparison, refers to “the Aztec empire, which met its doom when a technologically superior conqueror showed up: Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards.” The devastating consequences of this encounter are almost always couched in terms of “culture shock”, the approach adopted for instance by Dolan and Zabel in their A.D. After Disclosure.

It is perhaps no accident that those who speak in these terms are white, North American men; how such speculations are framed by interested parties outside this demographic in the rest of the world, I am unsure. What is striking about thinking of the consequences of contact in terms of culture shock is that it passes over if not represses the more painful facts of the matter implied in Stephen Hawking’s more laconic observation: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

The topic is timely because when we Canadians, for example, “look at ourselves” in the light of two fields of unmarked graves recently discovered on the grounds of residential schools what is revealed is that the disruption of the cultures of the First Nations is not so much due to some catastrophic shift in world-view, however radically unsettling, but the overt and covert violence of settler colonialism, i.e., that the very foundation of the Canadian nation state is premissed on the liquidation of the indigenous population as a means to exploiting the natural resources within its borders unhindered. Canada’s First Nations didn’t experience a spiritual crisis encountering the French, Dutch, and English, but have suffered being displaced from their lands and resources through violence or subterfuge and having their children forcefully removed to residential schools whose explicit purpose was summed up by Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-32: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department…” The shock to their culture was the result of intentional cultural genocide.

There is a not unrelated paradoxical irony at play in the way that one will hear in the same breath blithe speculations about civilizations thousands if not a billion years ahead of our own and reflections on “the Great Silence”, that we have yet to discover some bio- or technosignature of extraterrestrial life of a sufficiently-advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

Anyone familiar with the work that goes on here in the Skunkworks will be familiar with the implications of that first idea, but, here, I want to remark two other problems with this notion of so long-lived a civilization. On the one hand, one might ask “Whose culture?”, i.e., how to conceive of a culture or civilization that transcends the life of its biological substrate, the species of which it is a culture; a culture that outlives the species whose culture it is stretches the imagination, even moreso if that substrate is imagined to be transbiological, as such “artificial life” (if it can be said to possess a culture at all) would be more likely to change at an even greater rate than a biological species does under the pressures of natural selection. On the other hand, if we “look at ourselves” we find that one of the longest-lived, continuous cultures on earth is that of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, about 60,000 years. What underwrites the longterm stability of such cultures, however, is their having found a sustainable form of life, one rooted in a more harmonious relation to earth’s life support systems than that ecocidal relation characteristic of the so-called advanced, high-tech societies.

When it comes to the Great Silence, in an early articulation of an idea now termed “the Great Filter”, Sagan and Shklovsky in 1966 accounted for it by proposing that perhaps “it is the fate of all such civilizations to destroy themselves before they are much further along,” Unlike the pattern of repression that characterizes thoughts about contact, in this case UFO discourse has been explicitly related to existential threats to human civilization if not homo sapiens itself, from Jung’s proposals in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky to George Adamski‘s Venusians and Klaatu of the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still to recently revived stories of UFOs interfering with nuclear missiles to Vallée’s and Harris’ recent Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret the UFO has been associated with the danger posed by the advent and proliferation of nuclear weapons. More recently, beginning especially with the growing number of abduction stories in the 1980s, the mythology has come to weave itself into the more general ecological crisis, with abductees reporting they have been shown scenes of environmental destruction (a theme taken up by the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still). Unsurprisingly, e.g., believers in and proponents of Disclosure (official transparency about the reality of and longstanding relations with extraterrestrial civilizations) maintain that zero-point or free-energy extraterrestrial technology can replace our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels. However much the UFO orbits these existential threats, the fantasies this association gives rise to by way of solutions are as weighty as the angel hair that used to fall from the flying saucers: either the extraterrestrial intervention is prophetic (revealing a truth, however much we already know it) or the solution to the problems technological development brings with it is just more technology. In either case, it seems, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to the social order than underwrites present-day technological change, capitalism.

In all these speculations about technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations one can discern a play of revelation and concealment. On the one hand, thoughts about contact or the Great Silence relate and are related to mundane, human matters: the history of colonization during the Age of (so-called) Discovery or the resilience and sustainability of culture and civilization especially under the strain of increasing ecological pressures. On the other hand, on inspection, these reflections betray a repressed, social content that is the mark of the ideological. The (on-going) material violence of European colonization becomes a merely spiritual shock; “civilization” is abstracted from the bodies of the civilized, as if it might be possessed of some immaterial immortality, while, simultaneously, the real, long-lived cultures on earth are overlooked precisely because their form of life contradicts the self-estimation of the advanced societies as having superseded these more primitive contemporaries (i.e., precisely that these cultures are our contemporaries, that they are, therefore, no less modern than ourselves is what must be denied); and the solution to the problems “development” causes is thought to be ever more development, reinforcing the status quo at the base of the problem.

Just as UFOs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) appear to fly free of gravity and the physical laws of inertia and momentum, so too the thinking about or related to them frees itself from the material base (society, culture, and nature) of its ideas to flit around as nimbly, but, just as the countless stories of UFOs might be said to constitute a myth, a collective dream, the truth of these speculations is no less their grave, unconscious, repressed, all-too-earthly content.

As for that preliminary assessment on UAP? What of it? Here’s something on a leaked draft of a report on an arguably more urgent matter…

Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte? Reading Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret Against the Grain

My earlier notice (if not review) of Jacques Vallée’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret has two parts: the first, critical; the second, recuperative. In this second part, I try to salvage some significance from a book that, taken at face value, fails (the evidence is pure hearsay, presented in a barely coherent and, hence, unpersuasive manner, a presentation undermined further by a lack of sharp focus aggravated by frequent digressions, etc.). This salvage attempt is premissed on the insight I express in the notice: Trinity seems to grasp, “in however a tentative, repressed (unconscious) manner” the symbolic (mythological) significance of the story it reconstitutes and relates.

Here, I want to dilate and clarify that insight, venturing a reading of the text unanchored from the intentions of its authors (that it is an investigation of a real event, an early UFO crash/retrieval). The reading I essay here is an exercise or experiment, whose working assumption is that the authors know but repress there is nothing to the story and that its significance is not factual but symbolic. I most emphatically do not pretend to “put the authors on the analyst’s couch” to thereby reveal some obscured fact of the text, but, instead, put into play this faux “psychoanalytic” approach heuristically to account for both how the book is composed and to secure the symbolic truth that Vallée intuits but is unable to grasp as such (It’s as if Vallée “knows not what he writes”).

Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of the book is how it approaches the topic of the crash, retrieval, and debris in an often indirect manner, a lack of focus aggravated by apparently unmotivated digressions (i.e., their pertinence is not immediately clear). Roughly one third of the book is composed of interviews conducted by Harris with the three primary witnesses, “lightly edited… for clarity” (16) by Vallée who also interjects passages of commentary. These interviews are neither the focussed, dogged interrogations that would have dug into the case in the depth needed to make it even initially persuasive, nor have they been pruned down to all the better frame the details pertinent to the book’s argument.What possible relevance, for example, can Paola Harris’ and (the relative of one of the primary witnesses) Sabrina Padilla’s being afraid of snakes have (256)? The same can be asked of many pages, e.g., in the Foreword, the first chapter (that concerns the development and detonation of the first atom bombs), or Chapter Thirteen, the story of a visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1964. Were Trinity a work of literature, these formal features (the interviews and digressions) might be said to be mirrored at the level of content in the “poisonous” plants (Cocklebur and Nightshade) that suddenly one year are found to cover “the initial oval landing site” (78), supposedly sown by the Bureau of Land Management, and the intentional and natural changes to the landscape that buried what debris might remain “twenty feet down” (79). That is to say that the diffuse interviews obscure the matter while the digressions bury it under ever more text. It’s as if the authors seek to avoid the void at the core of the book,—the absence of the crashed craft, its pilots, the four different kinds of debris the witnesses describe, etc.—the dearth of hard evidence that becomes, as it were, a bottomless pit around which a screen of distraction must be erected and ever more text shoveled in to fill. I do not mean to suggest that the authors are trying to deceive the reader; rather that, following the heuristic premise that governs my reading, the stylistic features I remark appear as ways of concealing the poverty of their case from themselves and to compensate for this lack.

Aside from these positive features, there are, as it were, negative ones, which appear to function in the same, symptomatic ways. In my notice, I remark the persistent orthographic lapses, the typos that riddle the text, a most striking one, the spelling of a book’s title two different ways on facing pages (134-5). Such overt errors are of a piece with the poor organization of the text and its digressions. The way the accused will hem and haw and stumble over their words as they dissemble to conceal their guilt from their interrogators, the text’s lapses are a kind of nervous tic, indicative of graver problems.They are, as it were, a veiled confession, hairline fractures in the surface of the argument’s edifice that hint at the gaping, fatal cracks in its foundation. In addition, both how the book supports and fails to support its claims is suggestive. The first endnote, on the Plains of Saint Augustin or Agustin, is cribbed from Wikipedia, a not-even tertiary source that would fail to pass muster in a college-level research paper. In the footnote on page 33, the authors note that they were put on the trail to William Brothy, an Army Air Force pilot who is said to have seen both the smoke from the crash and the two primary witnesses (307), via the Amazon website. Moreover, many claims are left simply hanging. For example, Vallée states in many of the interviews conducted after the book’s release that the primary witnesses had binoculars as good as those possessed by the army. What binoculars, specifically, did the witnesses have? How does one know? What was the standard set of field glasses issued to the army in the American Southwest at the time? Most importantly, what are the optical specifications of these binoculars and what light can these specifications shed on the testimony of the witnesses concerning what they saw? Many such basic forensic considerations are passed over in silence. Such shoddy, negligent research both reveals and conceals the vacuity of the book’s case. Citing Wikipedia and the Amazon website, for instance, seems an admission that the matter is unworthy of more authoritative legitimation, while omitting or refusing to cite supporting evidence for the most basic yet essential claims ironically “covers up” the baselessness of the book’s argument. It’s as if the authors could not bear to look too closely into the matter for fear of revealing to themselves the absolute poverty of the case they seek to make. I am not claiming in fact that the authors are incompetent or fraudulent, only that the flaws in the text can be read as so many “returns of the repressed”.

One could analyze, as well, the way the authors “protest too much”, e.g., with regards to the reliability of the witnesses (seven and nine years old at the time of the incident), but I would turn now to how the unconscious awareness of the physical, factual vacuity of the case precipitates an awareness, in however no less repressed a manner, of the rich symbolic content of the story the authors tell. Ironically, the francophone Vallée will be the first to understand that the French word histoire (like the German Geschichte) denotes both ‘history’ (a chronicle of factual events) and ‘story’ (a fictional narrative). It is no less the case that contes and récits (roughly, tales) are histoires. Vallée and Harris purport to be relating an histoire but in truth they tell an histoire. Perhaps it’s this brisure (hinge) in the polysemy of ‘histoire‘ that swings Vallée’s thinking (however consciously) from informational patterns to literary texture or folkloric motifs:

Everything, in this story, appears to be going in threes…Three atomic bombs were exploded in the summer of 1945…There were three live Campamochas aboard the crashed craft…there were three ‘short ugly guys’ who ‘started to put things into the mind‘ of the sheepherder…Also, at least three metallic artifacts were recovered… (149)

Vallée remarks, too, “three objects of interest”: Fat Man (the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki), the “avocado” UFO observed by the witnesses, and the Jumbo test enclosure on display at the Trinity site (150), to which one could add the number of direct and indirect witnesses and the three peaks that give the Trinity site its name and the book its title. He collates, as well, an additional trio, comparing the San Antonio crash with the Socorro and Valensole landing cases (pp. 183 ff.).

Vallée wrestles with the idea that the details of the story he and Harris investigate are in some profound way meaningful: “Jose and Reme were witnesses to an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols between the brightest scientists in the world and something else, undoubtedly the product of another mind…” [my emphasis] (282). Regarding the stories of UFO crashes and retrievals, in part or in whole, he wonders

What if those UFO devices had been designed so they could not be reverse-engineered by people with our current level of knowledge and social development? What if their target was at a different level? At a symbolic level, about our relationship to life? At a psychic level, about our relationship to the universe? What if they contained an existential warning? [my emphasis] (287)

At one level, we witness here Vallée speculating about the crash, its spatiotemporal proximity to the detonation of the first atom bomb, the puzzling earthliness of the crashed object, the irrationality of its colliding with a radio tower, etc., ultimately imagining the whole event to be possibly an attempted communication from a nonhuman intelligence. Vallée’s struggle, however, in light of the reading I pursue here, is a process of realization, as if he were waking from a dream whose manifest content is the “literal” understanding of the story of the crash and whose latent content occurs precisely at a “symbolic level.” The story of the crash is “an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols“, between the witnesses and researchers and “another mind”, just not a nonhuman, extraterrestrial, ultratraterrestrial, interdimensional, or transtemporal mind, but that of the inhuman Other (following Lacan), the Unconscious, Creative, Collective, or otherwise, a dialogue that only becomes audible and one we can take part in only once we suspend our belief in the factual truth of the story Trinity tells, i.e., along the lines of the heuristic (“as if”) reading I here propose and sketch out.

This is perhaps “the best kept secret” of Trinity , that it is best understood not as a true histoire (and Kevin Randle, among others, has given us good reason not take it so) but as an uncannily unconscious fiction (histoire), a book that the science-fiction novelist Jacques Vallée failed to write. (And I am hardly alone in remarking the book’s possessing “all the hallmarks of a fictive account.”) As such, it can enter the engagement with “the myth of things seen in the skies” that extends from Jung to Lynch and beyond, into both the conscious and unconscious elaboration of the myth and the unending Traumwerk of understanding what it is we are trying to tell ourselves that we cannot otherwise face in the light of day and reason.

“In the beginning was the Word”: Concerning Jacques Vallée’s Stratagem and the Wilson/Davis document and related matters

In the wake of my notice of Jacques Vallée’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, Drew Williamson drew my attention to Giuliano Marinkovic’s contention that passages of Vallée’s 2006/7 novel Stratagem were based on his acquaintance with the Wilson/Davis documents that came to light mid-2019.

Regarding these documents, John Greenewald writes:

Allegedly, [the Wilson/Davis documents] contain the notes of Dr. Eric Davis, Chief Science Officer at EarthTech International, founded by Dr. Hal Puthoff. They outline a 2002 meeting between Dr. Davis, and Admiral Thomas Ray Wilson, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. During this meeting, many things were discussed including Admiral Wilson stating he was denied access to UFO related information.

Marinkovic makes the case, based on close textual scrutiny, that the scenario described in the ninth chapter of Vallée’s novel echoes details in the Wilson/Davis documents, from which Marinkovic infers that these “similarities from Stratagem go beyond accidental chance, [which] could indicate that Vallée probably had his own copy of the Wilson leak at least from 2005, and probably before.”

Marinkovic’s suspicion is premissed on the notion that “Fictional work is always a great platform to combine reality, knowledge and imagination,” by which I take him to mean that, especially in this case, art imitates life, such that Vallée’s fiction is an artful reworking and veiled revelation of facts that pre-exist its composition, thereby indirectly confirming the authenticity of the documents in question.

Greenewald, however, proposes a richly consequential alternative reading of the Wilson/Davis documents, namely, that they are a draft of a movie or television script, both in their formatting and textual features, prompted by the demand for such material with the recent ending of the X-Files. I don’t mean to imply that Vallée plagiarizes Davis, but that they were each working up the same ufological material, each to their own creative ends.

Indeed, as Greenewald points out, “this particular story involving Admiral Wilson has been around since at least 2001… It first made an appearance in a lecture by Dr. Steven Greer, given in Portland, Oregon on September 12, 2001.” Anyone familiar with the UFO mythology will recognize in the scenario variously developed by Greer, Davis, and Vallée a well-known theme or motif, that of a secretive group with access to debris or other materials (if not Extraterrestrial Biological Entities) retrieved from crashed flying saucers working to reverse engineer this recovered technology for various, often nefarious, ends. That the United States Air Force, government, or other entity knows more than it’s telling is a suspicion that goes back to the books of Donald Keyhoe and was or remains the basis for the believability of the MJ-12 documents. (We imagine Kevin Randle’s recently-published UFOs and the Deep State might shed some light on the matter, but the Research Library here at these Skunkworks has yet to secure its copy…).

What follows from these reflections is that what Marinkovic is dealing with is a purely textual phenomenon, ironically demonstrated by his method of argument: close textual analysis. What leads Marinkovic to the suspicions he voices (that Vallée’s novel is a fictional confirmation of the truth of the Wilson/Davis documents) is, I propose, the assumption that language need ultimately refer to some extralinguistic reality that anchors its truth. That the two texts he analyzes might be one moment of “intertextuality” or “dissemination” (text referring not outside itself but to another text…), this instance but one in an endless chain of such intratextual reference, doesn’t seem to occur to him.

A giddily dizzying twist is Vallée’s discussion of the Wilson/Davis documents in Trinity (pp. 280 ff., and notes (49), (50), and (51)). He prefaces his presentation of the matter with the words, “According to various reports…” Note (50) describes the provenance of the documents: “A copy of Eric Davis’ 15-page notes from the meeting [with Wilson] was among the private papers of astronaut Edgar Mitchell. After the information [the notes?] was acquired by Australian researcher James Rigney, it evidently ended up on the web following Captain Mitchell’s death…” (312). Despite the tentativeness of how he introduces the matter (“According to various reports…”), Vallée tellingly concludes: “…while the situation seems absurdly beyond everything we have been taught about the workings of our government, the fact is that we don’t know the nature of what is being hidden” (my emphasis) (281). Here, that Vallée believes some matter is indeed “being hidden” suggests he seems to take the documents at face value.

One need note how Vallée begins ambiguously (neither confirming nor denying the authenticity of the notes, leaving the question open) but ends (arguably) affirming the notes’ truth. That Vallée himself seems to accept the documents as authentic hardly confirms, however, their authenticity. What’s curious is that Vallée nowhere asserts he had had access to the notes via Davis, as Marinkovic suggests, rather that he (Vallée) had to learn of them and their contents like everyone else, via their acquisition and release by Rigney. We are left with several, incompatible possibilities. It may be that Vallée, for some reason, is dissembling in Trinity, that he in fact had access to the Wilson/Davis notes (regardless of their authenticity), imaginably via Davis himself, which would confirm Marinkovic’s close reading. Alternatively, Vallée is being truthful, in which case the textual parallels Marinkovic so persuasively lays out are a startling coincidence. Or it may be Davis was himself inspired by Vallée’s fictional treatment of the ufological motif in question to compose his own, fictional televisual treatment of a well-known scenario (which, of course, assumes Davis is indeed the author of the documents…). There are, doubtless, other possibilities I overlook here, but imagining and examining each it turn remains in the realm of speculation.

However much “the situation seems absurdly beyond everything we have been taught about the workings of our government”, it hardly seems beyond the absurdity the cognoscenti have learned to expect to find in the workings of ufology. And however much a truth might be said to remain hidden, to quote the all-too-often misconstrued words of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in the case of the Wilson/Davis documents it seems that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”.

A Note on Twin Peaks Season 3 and Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret

I ended my review of Jacques Vallée’s and Paolo Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret noting that the book, because of its suggesting a connection between the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP!) crash it investigates, finds “its place between the covert fictions of George Adamski (whose Venusians came to warn us of the dangers of atomic energy) and the overt fiction of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Since, I’ve become aware of certain uncanny motifs Trinity and Twin Peaks share.

Vallée has made no secret of his intuiting a connection between the Trinity “test”, “the emergence of our civilization into, essentially, the nuclear age,” and the San Antonio crash. What crashed was said to be egg-shaped (like an avocado). From a damaged side of the ship, diminutive pilots were said to have emerged, who were compared to Praying Mantises, Fire Ants, or Jerusalem Crickets.

It’s hardly unique to perceive the advent of atomic weapons as a fateful development in human history. For Vallée, evidence of our having entered the Atomic Age precipitated a non-human intervention, however ambiguous. In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Season 3, Episode 8, the Trinity test, too, disturbs a barrier between our world and some other, opening the way for no less mysterious, inhuman agents (the “Woodsmen”) and unnatural evil. The otherworldly origin of these beings and others is tied into the UFO mythology by Lynch’s recasting Project Blue Book (that thematically rimes with the series’ motif of “the Blue Rose”) as an investigation into just these beings and their nature.

In Episode 8, the Trinity test is followed in the next scene by the arrival of the Woodsmen through a weird portal in an abandoned convenience store somewhere in the American Southwest. The action shifts to an otherworldly void, where an amorphous if feminine figure emits an ectoplasmic vomit.

This extrusion seems a stream of unnatural evil that will manifest itself in our mundane reality in various ways. One of these is the landing of an egg (some visible in the still, above) in the general vicinity of the Trinity test and the convenience store, which will hatch a weird frog-moth hybrid that eventually makes its way into the mouth and down the throat of a hapless young woman, to possess or impregnate her.

The parallels are as striking as they are mystifying: the Trinity test is supernaturally momentous, triggering an opening between worlds and the intrusion into ours of the denizens of that other. In both imaginings (and Vallée’s and Harris’ is an imagining, being a reconstruction from hearsay), this intrusion manifests as an egg out of which emerge unnatural (however animal-like) beings. Here, I only register these shared motifs and venture no further speculations (though some suggest themselves: the oval shape of the first A-bombs and the connotations of the egg in general, the unnaturalness of mutated creatures, etc.), other than to note that the source of “the myth of things seen in the skies” works in mysterious ways!

“…they know not what they do”: What to Make of Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret by Jacques F. Vallée and Paola Leopizzi Harris

On finishing Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity, the reader would be forgiven if they wondered if the “Jacques Vallée” who co-authored this book were the same “Jacques Vallée” credited with writing Revelations or the recently re-issued Passport to Magonia. Where the last volume is, at least in certain circles, highly-prized for being inventive and groundbreaking and Revelations is a focussed, critical examination of the stories about alien abduction, crashed flying saucers and dead aliens, secret alien bases and cattle mutilation, Trinity is an unfocussed, raggedly-composed, eye-rollingly credulous mess of a book.

It would be a tedious exercise to catalogue its manifold failings. While Vallée speaks of himself as a scientist and even imagines scientists reading the book (286), Trinity is no work of science, scholarship, or even investigative journalism. Indeed, it reads like a first draft, in sore need of a thorough editing for content and structure, let alone a proof-reading. The main body of the book is composed of transcripts of interviews conducted by Harris (silently edited by Vallée “for clarity” (16)) with the three witnesses to a “UFO crash” avant le lettre and subsequent matters: Jose Padilla; Jose’s friend, Remigio Baca; and Sabrina Padilla, Jose’s niece. These interviews are interspersed by commentaries by Vallée to highlight their salient points and interlarded with chapters, often mystifyingly digressive, about matters historical and ufological: the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, the history of the American Southwest, the Socorro and Valensole landings, etc. Although the book contains footnotes, endnotes, a bibliography, and index, this scholarly apparatus is erratic and brow-furrowing. It’s too often unclear why well-known figures, such as Robert Oppenheimer, require an endnote and how the data related is pertinent to the book’s argument. Factual claims essential to the case that Vallée and Harris want to make far more often than not are left unsupported, rendering much of the book so much hearsay. An added insult are the typos that pepper the text. Important place names can’t even be spelled consistently: The Plains of San Augustin are the “Plains of San Agustin” (299) in the footnote explaining the location, the San Antonio crash site is as often “San Antonito”—even in the title of the book’s second chapter—, and Ryan Wood’s book Majic Eyes Only (134) becomes Magic Eyes Only on the facing page.

Flaws in organization, scholarly apparatus, and orthography could be forgiven if the book’s content were so earth-shatteringly urgent its hasty composition and issue were justified by the need to make its matter known. But rumours of the crash the book investigates at length if not in depth are hardly new to ufological ears: among others, Timothy Good, “a careful chronicler of modern ufology” (15), remarks the story in his 2007 book Need to Know. The case the authors want to make for the veracity if not significance of the event is buried under page after page of leisurely digressions (as noted above) and undermined by their credulity. Among too many examples, one can point to the seemingly uncritical acceptance of the testimony of Philip Corso (of which Vallée has been critical in the past) and the apparent belief in the authenticity of the Wilson / Davis document (that John Greenewald has explained in far more down-to-earth and persuasive terms).

Were Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret a serious work, it might have begun with a brief introduction as to how the case in question caught the attention of the authors and why they thought it worth their and the reader’s time to investigate (i.e., the book’s eleven-page foreword would be reduced to a few sentences). A survey of the literature might have been followed by a clear, focussed description and narration of the case, rigorously supported by citations to the research that substantiates it, with references where applicable to the complete, unedited transcripts, perhaps contained in an appendix. (The work of Kevin Randle and Joshua Cutchin are exemplary in this regard). An analysis and conclusion would have ended the book. Had Trinity been so researched and organized, and written with a sharp focus and scientific / scholarly objectivity, then we’d have a book that could claim more serious attention.

So, if Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret really can’t be counted as a scientific, scholarly, or journalistic work, to what genre does it belong? The answer is that it is a work of ufology. As unsurprising as such a categorization is, it implies more than, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson might imagine. The genre cuts a wide swath, from contactee George Adamski‘s Flying Saucers Have Landed to the more serious attempts at scientific ufology of Harley D. Rutledge and Peter A. Sturrock. It is possible, however, as I have argued at length here at the Skunkworks, to bracket the truth-claims of ufological media (and it is clearly a multimedia, cultural phenomenon) and study it as a kind of folklore or mythology-in-the-making, what Jung called “a visionary rumour”.

From this point of view Trinity is singular, for it is, to my knowledge, the first work of ufology to grasp, in however a tentative, repressed (unconscious) manner, this folkloric, textual dimension. In Chapter Twelve, “A Trinity of Secrets”, Vallée perceives a numerical, if not numerological, pattern:

Everything, in this story, appears to be going in threes…Three atomic bombs were exploded in the summer of 1945…There were three live Campamochas aboard the crashed craft…there were three ‘short ugly guys’ who ‘started to put things into the mind‘ of the sheepherder…Also, at least three metallic artifacts were recovered… (149)

Vallée also remarks the “three objects of interest”: Fat Man (the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki), the “avocado” UFO observed by the witnesses, and the Jumbo test enclosure on display at the Trinity site (150), to which one could add the number of direct and indirect witnesses and the three peaks that give the Trinity site its name and the book its title. Further, he collates an additional trio, comparing the San Antonio crash with the Socorro and Valensole landing cases (pp. 183 ff.). Vallée notices, too, that “the Aurora object [an airship said to have crashed in Aurora, Texas in 1897], like the oval craft seen by Padilla and Baca, hit a tower before it went crashing to the ground: two similar accidents, half a century apart…” (117). Often, Vallée refers to himself as an information scientist, interested in finding patterns in the data, signal in the noise. Philosophers would speak here of the play of identity and difference, literary and music critics of theme and variation, folklorists of motifs, and semioticians of the repetitions that constitute signs.

Vallée is clearly struck by the spatiotemporal proximity of the Trinity atom bomb test and the San Antonio crash and retrieval: the coincidence is significant, meaningful if not, strictly, synchronicitous. Indeed, in the conclusion, he grasps (at) the hermeneutic rather than the physical, scientific meaning of the event he and Harris have investigated: “Jose and Reme were witnesses to an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols between the brightest scientists in the world and something else, undoubtedly the product of another mind…” [my emphasis] (282). Reflecting on the stories of UFO crashes and retrievals, in part or in whole, he reflects

What if those UFO devices had been designed so they could not be reverse-engineered by people with our current level of knowledge and social development? What if their target was at a different level? At a symbolic level, about our relationship to life? At a psychic level, about our relationship to the universe? What if they contained an existential warning? [my emphasis]( 287)

He even attempts to divine the meaning of the event, interpreting it as “a signal, from the point of view of better scientists somewhere, that our survival may not be an inflexible requirement of the universe?” (288).

It’s as if Vallée “knows not what he writes”, his focus on investigating and explaining a physical event interferes with his understanding its symbolic cache, however much he does grasp the event possesses one. The thinker who first coined the expression ‘nihilism’ in the Eighteenth Century, Friedrich Jacobi, used it to refer to the implications of the worldview of Spinoza and the then-burgeoning natural sciences: a self-enclosed cosmos of cause-and-effect was without meaning; the sciences can describe and explain how the world is, but cannot account for the fact that it is. This nihilism, the natural sciences’ overlooking or bypassing the question of the meaning of what they study, blocks Vallée from being able to move into a purely semiotic, hermeneutic analysis of the matter. The crash can only be a signal, a communication of sorts, because the sciences can grasp language only in its communicative, informational function, not, ironically, in its mythopoetic, “symbolic” dimension. Events like that under investigation in his and Harris’ book do indeed bear witness to an “an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols“, between the witnesses and researchers and “another mind”, just not a nonhuman, extraterrestrial, ultratraterrestrial, interdimensional, or transtemporal mind, but that of the inhuman Other (following Lacan), the Unconscious, Creative, Collective, or otherwise.

As we have argued at length from the start, the “myth of things seen in the sky” can be grasped precisely as a spontaneously-generated, anonymous folklore that operates at “a symbolic level, about our relationship to life.” As a mythology or folklore, it operates in a semantic space that is both and neither true and false. That is, the countless stories about UFOs and their occupants, both direct (e.g, a sighting report) and indirect (e.g., the speculations Vallée himself indulges around the Wilson / Davis document (pp. 280 ff.)) are taken for fact by some and as a curious fiction by others. Vallée attempts to grasp the meaning of a physical event and finds himself caught between the Scylla of the fictive and the Charybdis of fact, unwilling or unable to be lifted by the former because of his investment in the latter.

As I remarked in my first, brief reflection on the announcement and eventual publication of Vallée’s and Harris’ book, in an interview with the authors, Jimmy Church’s stated belief, that the San Antonio crash “could be another Roswell”, is likely prophetic, not in foretelling the future (though that, too), but in its seeing into the truth of the matter. Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, especially because of its failings, all the work it leaves to be done, might well spawn another shelf in the UFO crash retrieval library, like Stanton Friedman’s initial research did for the Roswell crash. And, as such, Trinity will take its place between the covert fictions of George Adamski (whose Venusians came to warn us of the dangers of atomic energy) and the overt fiction of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which ties the Trinity test to analogous and no less grave or eerily symbolic developments.

“It is hard to see how any other outcome is possible”: The Platonism of S.E.T.I.

Regular visitors to these Skunkworks can imagine how our interest was piqued by the headline “Philosopher UFOlogist says humans are not ready to make contact”. The Skunkworks Research Library secured the (self-published) book in question, Adrian Rudnyk’s The Assessment:  The Arrival of Extraterrestrials, and a brief notice of it might be forthcoming, but, here, I want to essay the more profound way that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and speculations about intelligent, technologically-advanced extraterrestrial life is more “philosophical” than Rudnyk seems to perceive or SETI and its collaborators would themselves probably be prepared to admit.

A driving thesis of the critical and creative work here is that the very idea of a technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilization is ideological, i.e, the form of one society and culture of one species on earth is held up as paradigmatic and natural. So-called “advanced” society (that of the so-called “First World”) imagines itself to be, in Francis Fukuyama‘s expression, “the end [the final goal] of history”. This assumption underwrites untroubled speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and culture: if some life evolves “intelligence” (like that displayed by technologically-advanced terrestrial societies), then that intelligence will likewise develop technologies along lines analogous to the development of earthly technologies, such that it makes sense to speak of these extraterrestrial technologies as being less or more advanced than those possessed by homo sapiens at a given time. The homogeneity of such development is even thought sufficient to be able to speak intelligibly about technologies hundreds, thousands, and even millions upon millions of years “more advanced”…

A most recent example of this kind of “thinking” is that of Avi Loeb. Loeb is best known among SETI and UFO enthusiasts for proposing and arguing that the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system, 1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua was in fact an alien artifact, a “technological relic.” Such astroarchaeological artifacts would be valuable to find, study, and reverse engineer, Loeb argues, because “it might be a way of short-cutting into our future because it would take us many years to develop the same technology, so there are lots of benefits that I can imagine for humanity from just finding technological relics in space.” I’ve addressed Loeb’s views here before, both specifically and more generally. Aside from these criticisms, in light of Arik Kershenbaum’s The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals of Earth Reveal About Aliens—and Ourselves, I’m prompted add another, addressed to Loeb’s self-confessed love of philosophy.

Kershenbaum’s book by and large is more level-headed than Loeb’s recent Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, extrapolating, as it does, what we know about the evolution of life on earth to potential life forms on other planets. Such an exercise does not fall prey to ideological blindness the way that Loeb et al. do, as it assumes only that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry (and, by extension, evolution) hold throughout the galaxy if not known universe. However, when pushed, Kershenbaum can’t help but fall into the same trap as all those who take the idea of technological, extraterrestrial civilizations “seriously”. In a recent interview with the author, Kermit Pattison relates

Kershenbaum predicts that some aliens will exhibit social cooperation, technology and language… He even posits that aliens will share the quality we hold most dear: intelligence. “We all want to believe in intelligent aliens,” he writes. “It seems inevitable that they will, in fact, exist.”

That such a scenario “seems inevitable” reveals that Kershenbaum and those who think like him are no longer engaged in scientific but metaphysical speculation. Indeed, the idea of this inevitability is arguably grounded in Plato’s theory of Forms, which precedes even the term ‘metaphysics’.

Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas is arguably as much an invention of Plato’s interpreters as of the author of the dialogues himself. That being said, one can all-to-quickly summarize the theory in its received form as follows:

The world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of the world presented to our senses.

If we think of these Forms as designs or plans, the temporal connotations of these words suggests just how Kershenbaum’s prediction about extraterrestrial intelligence flowering in technology are in a sense Platonic. It’s as life were possessed of a potential to develop what we know as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that it might actualize to a greater or lesser degree. Some organisms (e.g., homo sapiens) fulfill this potential, others (slime mold?) do not, while others “inevitably” actualize it even more than we have. It’s the inevitability of the idea, that we are sure to encounter technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that essentializes it. It’s part of the essence (Form, Idea…) of life that it has the potential to develop “intelligence” and subsequently “technology”. Homo sapiens are merely an instantiation of the actualization of this essential potential.

The fetishistic character of this idea that Western civilization is somehow a cosmic norm is revealed all the more starkly when we reflect that the “intelligence” operative in STEM (instrumental, calculative reason) and the technology it produces (and, no less, is, in a sense, produced by) is hardly even the norm among human beings, let alone life on earth. The narrowing down of rationality to technical problem solving is a perversity peculiar to a particular society, very restricted in space and time, ironically, one whose own science undercuts and overturns this blinkered, proud self-regard; at the same time, this very science is itself hardly a universal potential aspect of culture, being but one, and a very new one, among many no less functional “systems of knowledge” that have enabled groups of homo sapiens to survive and flourish.

However much Kerschenbaum, Loeb, and others might protest, that our science is governed by often all-too unconscious metaphysical assumptions is well-known to philosophers, among them, surely, Diane W Pasulka. In her American Cosmic, she invokes Martin Heidegger‘s notion of technology in the course of her argument that technology and that represented by the UFO has taken on a religious aura in recent history. Heidegger is well-known for (among other things) articulating what he called “the History of Being”, i.e., a particular trajectory of the basic question of ontology, “What is ‘being’?” from Plato and Aristotle, who first explicitly posed the question, down to himself, who poses it and recasts it again as “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time. What the history of Being uncovers is that the question received a definitive answer among the ancient Greeks, one that held sway until Heidegger’s resuscitation of the question and “destruction” of the history of ontology to free the inquiry from its sedimented, guiding assumptions. Plato and Aristotle posited that “being is presence”, an answer to the question that was passed down to Christian and Medieval civilization, and inherited as an unspoken presupposition of what became the natural sciences.

Aside from whether one accepts Heidegger’s history of Being, it is surely ironic that, on the one hand, Kershenbaum invokes the precariously chance-ridden process of evolution to imagine life on other worlds, while remaining somehow blind to the even more aleatoric process that leads to any given culture’s having ended up where it is, while, on the other, Loeb would argue that humankind should be humble, because it is not unique! What greater hubris is there than to project one’s own peculiar society as somehow characteristic of life in the cosmos? In this regard, Kershenbaum and Loeb not only unknowingly take up inherited Platonic notions but arguably also in a parody of the Ptolemaic universe place this latest, if not last, moment of Western civilization at the centre of, if not the universe, then its workings, an instance of a norm no less universal than the speed of light.

Sightings: Monday 24 May 2021: Polarized Politics, Propaganda, and Post-Truth Populism

Sometimes bits of ufological and related news catch my attention. Either due to my time/energy or interests, these may not be provocative enough to inspire a whole post, so, on such occasions, under the category “Sightings”, I at least try to leave some trace of the thoughts these ephemera did in fact prompt. This week, there are three…

“…the issue is entirely political…”

That the topic of UFOs (UAP) is charged is surely an understatement. As an element of Twentieth and Twenty-first Century world culture, the UFO hovers over fields from science to religion, national security to science fiction, and even politics, in various senses both popular and more philosophical, gets caught up and drawn into its vortex.

Amid the increasingly bigger media splash UFOs are making since the breakout New York Times articles is the appearance of the topic on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, where Sean Cahil and Christopher Mellon as well as Mick West were recently interviewed. Apart from the question of just what the videos in question actually show, that the so-called “mainstream media” is covering UAP (UFOs) prompted the following comment on a Facebook group I belong to: “this is no longer a scientific issue. Now that 60 Minutes has made UFOs mainstream the issue is entirely political. Already we have the left wing CNN vs. the right wing FOX News. Now Chris Cuomo vs. Tucker Carlson,” an angle on the politics of American media shared by Robert Sheaffer: “On the right, we have Tucker Carlson on Fox News, and the New York Post. On the left, we have the Washington Post and The New York Times.” (Though I’m unsure just how, e.g., Cuomo’s and Carlson’s views on the matter significantly differ …).

The commenter’s take is backed up by a relatively recent Gallup poll conducted in the first half of August 2019. published just this month (May 2021): “Which comes closer to your view: some UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies, or all UFO sightings can be explained by human activity on Earth or natural phenomenon?” Again, apart from the unremarkable (if not problematic) question itself, what’s curious is the very first remark concerning the poll’s findings: “This is one topic on which Republicans and Democrats agree: 30% of the former and 32% of the latter describe UFOs as alien spacecraft from other planets. Belief is a bit higher among political independents, at 38%.”

That a topic, however “popular”, such as UFOs should get caught up in the cultural polarization that characterizes U.S. society presently in a social media comment is not too surprising, but when the question of an individual’s identifying as “Republican” or “Democrat” becomes a default question for, in this case, a Gallup poll, “politics” becomes an sign of a more grave, social malady. (With regard to the question of what someone believes about UFOs, why should party allegiance trump, e.g., education, religion, race, or income?). Clearly, UFOs are not political—a matter of social consequence—the way that gun, abortion, or voting rights are; it’s just that, in American media, any topic that catches its attention is immediately parsed in this all-too-familiar, polarized fashion.

There are, however, more profound senses in which the UFO is political, or, more properly, can be understood politically, i.e. ideologically. On the one hand, one can speak of Left or Right “ideologies”, the explicit set of beliefs and values adhered to by a group, the “everyday” (popular, vulgar) sense of the term. ‘Ideology’, however, denotes more usefully precisely those beliefs about society and its values that are unspoken and often shared across the (vulgar) political spectrum, assumptions that demarcate and maintain that social context within which differences, such as those between American Republicans and Democrats, play out…

On the one hand, Trotskyist Posadists and paranoid, right-wing reactionaries, such as Bill Cooper, both believe that UFOs are spaceships from a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization, but their (vulgar) ideological differences obscure the radically ideological content of the belief that UFOs are advanced, unearthly technology. The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis as such is ideological. As I formulated this thesis most recently:

However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.

Something’s going on, but we don’t know what it is…

The recent media attention being paid to UAP focusses on videos and photographs all leaked from the U.S. Navy, whether 2015’s “Gimbal” and “Go Fast” videos, 2004’s “FLIR1” or “Tic Tac” video, the more recent “Pyramid” footage, or the “Metal Blimp w/ payload”, “Sphere”, and “Acorn” photographs (the featured image for this post, above) or now a video of a USO or “transmedium” vehicle from the USS Omaha. All these are problematic in two, provocative ways. First, none, on close examination, very persuasively show anything unusual let alone unearthly. The three photographs arguably picture party balloons (the Metal Blimp, a shark, and the Acorn, a Batman balloon) or something just out of focus (the Sphere). The Pyramid appears to be nothing more than a camera artifact. And the Gimbal, Go Fast, Tic Tac, and USS Omaha videos have their proposed mundane explanations, too. More troubling is how this video/photographic evidence is simultaneously officially stamped as “authentic” (taken by military personnel) but their provenance remains in the dark. So, many have posed the question as to why such unimpressive, officially-sanctioned “evidence” is being released, disseminated, and spun the way it is (among them, most recently, Andrew Follett).

From the first ripples of this splash (that gave us History’s Unidentified) to the present waves (or foam) of interest and commentary, the purported Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) have been presented as potential threats. Setting aside the proposals of Steven Greer and Michael Salla (…), that this spin is part of the preparation for a false flag alien invasion, others propose that the threat narrative is a way for the military industrial complex to secure greater support or funding. But this proposal is unconvincing, given the famously bloated defense budget of the U.S. that withstands every attempt to deflate it even a little. There’s already a Space Force, and, given that the threats posed by Russia, China, and even global warming are all officially acknowledged and monitored, what need would the Pentagon have to resort to such easily-debunked evidence of UAP incursions to make a case for itself? It’s precisely the shoddiness of the proffered “evidence” that seems to persuade only hardcore believers, themselves only a fraction of that roughly a third of Americans who will entertain the idea that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, that gives me pause for thought. Even if these UAP are spun as earthly, foreign aerospace developments (as would seem to be suggested by the news about questionable patents for exotic propulsion systems, also part of the story), already-accepted real-world threats are hardly aggravated by unpersuasive video or photographic evidence, however “official”…

Time will tell, or, as is often the case when it comes to UFOs/UAP, it won’t, creating an abyss for neverending speculation to fill Google’s YouTube servers and swell the bookshelves of UFOphiles…

It’s just so much more complicated…

Finally, first in response to a blog post by Christ Rutkowski, then at the prompting of The Anomalist‘s Bill Murphy, I essayed some thoughts on the causes and character of the kind of thinking that goes into our post-truth iterations of New World Order, etc. conspiracy theorizing. I stand by the genealogy and the psychological and social aspects of the phenomenon I sketch, but, the matter being very complicated, I failed to remark two, essential dimensions. First, the disruption of our sensus communis has been undertaken by agents both domestic and foreign: there would be no “post-truth” crisis were it not for Trump and his ilk echoing, in their own farcical way, the Nazi rhetoric directed against die Lügenpresse and foreign (and now domestic) actors working to misinform and increasingly polarize the citizenry. More profoundly, the advent of digital and social media is overwhelmingly pertinent, both as a general condition governing the dissemination of information, both in terms of its content and velocity, and as the technology weaponized by the aforementioned actors. As well, I assumed anyone interested in the topic would be familiar with the ways that propaganda (from Operation Mockingbird to the Iraqi WMD scandal) and government secrecy (from Watergate to “deep events” such as the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11, among many other instances) had long tilled the soil for the crop we reap today.


Shining a flashlight down the rabbit hole: some reflections on post-truth populist thinking

Since I first responded to Chris Rutkowski’s short tirade against what he calls “metamodernism” William Murphy has been “looking for [me to cast] more light upon that larger-than-forteana malady [of post-truth populism and its conspiracy theories] and its ‘cure.'” So, here, I lay out some admittedly provisional thoughts on our “post-truth” moment, that populist worldview that articulates itself by appeal to “alternative facts” and in the form of various, contemporary reiterations of New World Order conspiracy theory, e.g., QAnon or other theories woven around “the Great Reset”, etc. “Populism” as such is of course a wider and deeper social phenomenon….

Roots in the Reformation sprout in Postmodernity

In my last foray, I posited that the phenomenon of post-truth, ironically (or dialectically), finds its deepest roots in modernity, first, in the shattering and ultimate atomization of spiritual authority in the Reformation, which democratized the meaning of scripture. This religious development has its rational corollary in the Enlightenment; Immanuel Kant famously exhorted his readers to “dare to know” (sapere aude), to have the courage to use their reason independently, to think for themselves (however much his argument in “What is Enlightenment?” is more nuanced and sophisticated than that). Just as faith and reason came to be housed in the individual, in a not unrelated way, so society in general, with the advent of capitalism and liberal democracy, after a long process, arrives at a maximum of atomization, with citizens being reduced to consumers or, with the gig economy, “entrepreneurs of themselves” and with near (if hardly unproblematic) universal franchise. Ironically (or dialectically) this distribution of power results in an ever greater financial, material insecurity and a no less widening gap between the individual citizen and the political decisions that impact their lives.

Along with the crumbling of a single, unified religious authority, the edifice of Aristotlean natural philosophy began to crack under the strain of the Scientific Revolution. The consequence of these developments is that the theological notion of a ready-made world that can be truly represented by the no-less divine gifts of thought and speech can no longer be assumed, which demands a new foundation for truth and knowledge be uncovered or laid down. The attempt to secure just such a firm, first principle begins with Descartes, who, famously, grounds certainty on the self-aware subject. Descartes’ solution along with those of Spinoza, Reinhold, Fichte, and Hegel all spectacularly fail, however. Two consequences followed: on the one hand, the natural sciences, encouraged by the successes of ever-more refined specialization, continued to proliferate to the point where the thought of an underlying unity that might harmonize them, if not with each other, at least with the lifeworld, became unsupportable; on the other, the philosophical implications of this abyss at the foundation of knowledge led to, among others, the tentative, open-ended reflections of the Jena Romantics. One of the most famous of their number, Friedrich Schlegel, sets out the position of modern (or postmodern) knowledge-without-a-first-principle in two fragments: “Philosophy is an epos, begins in the middle;” thus, “Demonstrations in philosophy are just demonstrations in the sense of the language of the art of military strategy. It is no better with [philosophical] legitimations than with political ones; in the sciences one first of all occupies a terrain and then proves one’s right to it afterward.”

In the trope that governs Schlegel’s latter fragment one can see the beginning of a line of thought that can be traced through the Marxist concept of ideology, Nietzsche’s metaphor of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors…”, Foucault’s archaeologies of power/knowledge, down to today’s (parody of) “postmodern” sensibility, for which all claims to truth or knowledge are merely rhetorical ploys in a language game of domination. The post-truth mind is not so much one that denies truth or facts but one that holds that claims to truth and knowledge are all invested or otherwise weaponized to the point that partial truths, distortions, or outright lies are deployed to enforce a worldview and maintain or entrench societal control. Since attempts to maintain control must come from those already in power, suspicion is therefore directed at institutions and authorities, “elites”; post-truth is consequently a “populist” attitude that sets alternative worldviews over against that perceived to maintain the status quo.

“Social existence determines consciousness”:  desperate inspiration

However much post-truth is bound up with Twenty-First Century populism, populism itself is no more homogeneous than the beliefs held by its members. American populism (Trumpism, in its most recent iteration) must be thought differently than its contemporary Brazilian, Filipino, Hungarian, Polish, or Turkish varieties, as all these nations have markedly different histories than the oldest modern democracy (or republic, if you insist); the soil that roots these varieties differs, well, radically. Nevertheless, what can be said of all these populisms, including the French Yellow Vest movement, is that they are arguably underwritten by a frustrated impatience with the material precarity brought about by decades of neoliberalism. This crisis is aggravated by the recalcitrance of national governments and the no less opaque, indifferent workings of the global order. If nature as the object of scientific research is now possessed of a complexity that transcends the ability of anyone to encompass it in a unifying vision, then how much moreso are our cultural, social, economic, political lives, compounded as such complexity is by the wilful obfuscation of private and public institutions, whether in the form of tobacco or fossil fuel corporations’ lies about the harmlessness of their products and activities or officials speaking about weapons of mass destruction or trickle down economics?

Slavoj Žižek in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown already characterized the reaction to this situation that gives rise to our present versions of New World Order (or Great Reset) conspiracy theories:

Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!’ Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess—which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required.

What results are attempts to resolve the problematic complexity that are simultaneously overly simplistic (identifying that one “agent lurking behind the scenes”, e.g., “the Jew”, “the Illuminati”, “Elites”, etc.) and endlessly complicated (as exemplified by the way conspiracy theories modify themselves, shift ground and expand in response to criticisms and new “information”). Populist, post-truth worldviews (if they can be termed such) are thus a kind of vulgar ideology critique, attempts to disperse the lies that maintain an increasingly insufferable status quo and replace them with a “true” description and explanation of the workings of the world. The post-truth populist does indeed touch on a truth: society represents itself to itself (in a partial and incoherent way) that naturalizes the purely contingent, historical state of affairs to the benefit of those who materially profit from the status quo. The wild fictiveness, however, of the resulting counter “theory” of society results from at least two features. On the one hand is the aforementioned drive to (over)simplification; on the other, how the competing, conspiratorial worldview is constructed and modified: its “alternative facts” are chosen not so much because they are epistemically robust but because they are in the first instance contrary to the official story. “Facts” are chosen for their rhetorical (persuasive), not their truth, value. For example, what’s important about the numbers reported by the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System is not in fact how they are meant to be understood but how, taken in a perverse way, they contradict the official view (“vaccines are rigorously tested and safe”) and support the alternate view (“even the government’s own numbers show thousands of deaths and injuries!”). The persuasiveness of “alternative facts” is ultimately not their factual but their emotional truth. They give a “rational” support to bitterly-felt grievances and a kind of purchase to attack, even if only discursively (e.g., in the Facebook posts I share), the powers that be. Perhaps this understanding goes some little way to illuminating the irony that those who most vociferously denounce more mainstream media as “fake news” or propaganda are themselves often the first to fall for the most egregiously flimsy and unsupported counterclaims.

Unsurprisingly, on inspection, the post-truth position falls prey to its own premises. It is not that truth and falsity have been abandoned: the populist appeal to alternative facts couldn’t function without an appeal to truth and facts: the official facts are accused of being distortions or outright lies, while the alternative facts give the otherwise suppressed or marginalized truth of the matter. The populist has grasped that claims to truth possess a rhetorical power independent of their truth value, i.e. even a convincing lie can be persuasive, and the picture of the world presented by the mainstream media and the powers-that-be are seen to be just such persuasive lies, lies in the service of power and oppression (which, in a sense, as ideology, they are, just not as an elaborate fiction constructed by a small, secretive if not secret elite that controls dictatorially the world’s media all in order to hide its nefarious agenda …). Over against the lies of officialdom are the true facts of the matter as revealed by alternative sources of news and information. Of course, as far as mainstream, consensus reality is concerned, these alternative facts are mistaken and indeed can be shown to be so. There was no “Kraken” to be released; the generals who arranged to have Trump elected to drain the swamp and oust the Deep State didn’t move to prevent Biden from taking office, nor did they arrest, try, and execute Obama and Hilary Clinton at Guantanamo; the authorized Covid vaccines were indeed tested on animals, etc. Ironically, the claim to truth of alternative facts is grounded in the first instance on their contradicting the official version, i.e., inspection reveals them to be the mere rhetorical ploys the populist accuses the official facts to be. The post-truth populist might be said to be cynical—“They lie to promote their agenda, why shouldn’t I?”—but for the fact (!) that they do in fact (!!) seem to believe their alternative facts are true. Aside from being unconscious of the irony of their thinking in this regard, the post-truth populist seems insulated against the repeated, relentless assault on the edifice of fictions that make up their worldview by cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon long recognized by social psychologists: each clear refutation (e.g., “the storm” foretold by Q failed to materialize, etc.) only inspires the believer to double down in their belief. Psychologist Jovan Byford sums it up well:

Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.

At root, the far out views held by post-truth populists are not in the first instance (necessarily) rooted in stupidity, ignorance, or sheer perversity, but a desperate need to understand if not alleviate real material precarity and suffering or a perceived threat to well-being or cultural identity. That this “resistance” is carried out almost exclusively at the symbolic level (sharing social media posts, collectively defending and elaborating the theory, or even waving flags or signs), even or especially when it expresses itself in the spectacle of the January 6 riots, ironically reveals the truth of a canonical formulation of the early Marx from 1859’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” That is, on the one hand, the appeal to alternative facts is a subliminal appeal for an alternative social arrangement (their material conditions and their unhappiness with them motivate the populists’ symbolic revolt), while, on the other, the elaboration of a counter discourse is insufficient to alter those conditions that give rise to the populist’s frustrated exasperation (how the populist views the world has no real purchase to “determine their existence”): the conspiratorial worldview promises to reveal how the world works with one hand, while withdrawing any solution to this horrible truth it uncovers with the other. Perhaps precisely because conspiracy theories lack that pragmatic dimension that would answer the question, “What is to be done?” they inspire such incoherent, real-world interventions, from the Oklahoma City Bombing, to Pizzagate, to the burning of 5G telephone towers, or, more generally, to the election of relatively unhinged politicians or the spread of misinformation that cultures, e.g., vaccine hesitancy, right on down to the casualties suffered during the January 6 Capital Riot. Such desperate, impetuous actions serve only to underline all the more how byzantine fictions built up around, e.g., the Great Reset, function ideologically: they are “imaginary solutions to real problems” that, materially, leave everything as it is.

We are left facing a rather melancholy impasse. The rupture of a social sensus communis we experience, e.g., in the political / cultural polarization in the U.S., has been long in coming, arguably landing with those Protestant refugees who arrived on the Mayflower. Albert Hofstadter outlines the history of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in his 1963 lecture, article, and, later, book from the American War of Independence down to his day, and many scholars since, especially since the 1980s (with the rise of militia groups throughout the United States) and 1990s (with the advent of the internet) have studied the phenomenon of what today we know too well as “conspiracy theories”, furrowing their collective brows trying to make sense of it. The approach I adopt here would see the problem as being baked into the very foundations of modern, “Western” civilization itself, both at the level of “consciousness” (what we think) and “social existence” (how we in fact live together). The problem—and it is a problem, as it causes grave troubles, from the political impasse of American political life to hindering actions to mitigate the present pandemic’s harm let alone climate change, all the way to mob violence and violent death—cannot be countered only at the symbolic level (the level of “consciousness”), either through educational reform (increased literacy, numeracy, and general education) or better communication (about, e.g., the virus itself, public health measures, the science of vaccines, etc.). The anxiety, resentment, and anger that motivate the turn to post-truth agonisms is rooted in “social existence”, and the appeal of alternative facts and theories about their causes will not lose their allure until these anxieties are addressed at their root.

Crash / Retrieval Syndrome as Visionary Rumour or Folklore

If, as Jung so long back proposed, the Flying Saucer “mythology of things seen in the sky” is a “visionary rumour”, then the event of the announcement, then retraction, and final appearance of Jacques Vallee’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: the Best Kept Secret fits this characterization doubly. Most pertinently, the book’s argument is primarily based on three witness accounts, i.e. word of mouth; no less interestingly has been the furor of the book’s online reception. In either case, this dual phenomenon apart from the truth of that “best kept secret” is thought-provoking. I hazard a few of these preliminary thoughts, here.

Even before the e-version of the book was released, there was no little discussion, to put it mildly, about Vallee’s engaging with what Leonard Stringfield so aptly termed “crash / retrieval syndrome”, as the book deals with a presumed 1945 crash and retrieval of what only later came to be called a UFO. This apparent shift from Vallee’s more sophisticated if not uncontroversial approach to the UFO phenomenon, from a broader-based, cultural, sociological, psychological one to one more “nuts-and-bolts” caused almost as much consternation as his collaborating with Paola Leopizzi Harris, a researcher of relatively questionable reputation. Moreover, the event the book investigates was hardly unknown to researchers, so any new interest in so stale a case itself was curious.

Barbara Fisher seeks to spin Vallee’s new work as being more consistent with his modus operandi than would seem at first blush, applying a very approximate thematic comparison between the cases Vallee engages with in the documentary Witness of Another World and in his new co-authored book. I don’t find the shared motifs she posits very compelling, but the suggestion that we look at the tale of the Trinity event as folklore holds promise. On the one hand, the Trinity event is very much identifiable as a type of ufological narrative, that of the crash / retrieval: a UFO is seen to crash, its alien pilots or occupants emerge, local authorities are called in (in this case a father and officer of the law) or appear (namely, the army), the UFO is carted off, and the area more-or-less sanitized but for some stray debris the witnesses are able to surreptitiously recover and retain, all motifs common enough to be subjected to the pioneering kind of analysis developed by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale.

More damningly (or more interestingly), however, the witness testimony around the event is no less (inter)textual. Kevin Randle bases his skepticism of the story in part on the many instances where the account of the supposed 1945 event quotes well-known testimony from the later, much more famous Roswell event. Reme Baca’s description of a piece of “memory metal” he found echoes an analogous description by Robert Smith, interviewed by Randle and Don Schmitt in their research into the Roswell UFO crash. Moreover, both Reme Baca and Jose Padilla, again, echo Roswell witness Bill Brazel about the retrieval’s being carried out at one point by “four soldiers”.

Aside from these rich, textual and narratological features, the Trinity story also invokes at least two pieces of debris. As in other stories of its kind, whether pieces of memory-metal, metamaterials, fibreoptic filaments avant le lettre, or even recovered aliens, dead or alive, all these, aside from their strictly evidentiary value, undoubtedly possess a profound meaning. The character of this significance has been compared to that possessed by religious relics, whether splinters of the One True Cross or the incorruptible bodies of saints or parts thereof. There are important ways the meaning of such crash debris is emphatically not like that of religious relics. Nevertheless, that they are clung to so fiercely as evidencing the truth of the mythology, often in spite of very compelling forensic findings, testifies to the part they play in a belief system.

As Jimmy Church observes in his recent interview with the authors, “This could be another Roswell!”. I suggest here that Church’s words are prophetic, not in the sense that Trinity and Roswell are analogous, real world events, but that the former, with the publication of Vallee’s and Harris’ book, stands to become another seed for an endlessly branching and proliferating story, like that of the latter, regardless of what kernel of truth each might possess. Indeed, the Trinity case, both in itself and its initial reception, seems more grist for a sociological mill, another example of the genesis, development, and elaboration of a visionary rumour, if not a new religion.

Deep Roots of Post-Truth

When The Anomalist (3 May 2021) was kind enough to share my response to Chris Rutkowski’s “The Metamodern UFO (or UAP) (or USO) (or UAO) (or whatever)“, it hoped I might elucidate that “pressing concern” of post-truth populism that so gets Rutkowski’s goat and poses such a threat to the effective functioning of contemporary society.

Unhappily, I’m hardly sure what therapy to apply to this uneasiness if not “dis-ease” with epistemic authority if not truth itself, though if one googles “how to talk to a conspiracy theorist” one will find some proposals. I have, however, speculated as to the cultural conditions that might be said to underwrite if not cause this latter-day crisis of faith.

As I observed in my reflections prompted by Rutkowski’s complaint, ufologically speaking, the present tension between reason and irrationalism goes back to the mutual disdain between the earliest forensic, scientific ufologists and the Contactees and their followers. Not two years ago, concerning a recent replay of this division, I addressed a question raised by Håkan Blomqvist, “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”, in the course of which I sketched out some thoughts on modern-day post-truth populism. What I wrote then still strikes me as not unilluminating. In a word, the condition for the post-truth “metamodernity” Rutkowski so decries is precisely what he terms “modernism”: the more or less contemporaneous advent of the Scientific (and then the Industrial) Revolution, Capitalism, and liberal democracy (as well as the Reformation and Age of so-called Discovery…). As to what is to be done

Two years ago I wrote…underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.

A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.

Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.

Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.

Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.

Facts, Truth, Meaning, and the “Metamodern” UFO

In a recent screed, Chris Rutkowski bemoans the fact that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ beliefs that include, for example, that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft.”

Rutkowski blames the ascendancy of such irrationality, not only in ufology but in the general culture as well (witness the viral misinformation debunked daily by sites such as Lead Stories or Politifact), on what he terms “metamodernism”, what he describes as a kind of thinking that freely revises and reconfigures material with no regard to the original significance of these materials or their potential contradiction. Aside from the examples he cites (‘a “remix” in current music, “modding” a video game so it plays differently, and a “reboot” of a film’), what he describes also brings to mind the various ways quantum mechanics is brought to bear on matters of spirituality or consciousness. He links such thinking to the following consequence:

Nothing I can say or do can possibly shift you from any of those views or claims, regardless of any evidence that exists to show you are in error (“wrong”) or that your belief is false, even if your own evidence is disputable or comes from doubtful sources or it has alternative possible explanations.

See? Nothing is true, but conversely, nothing is false.

Anyone who’s engaged in even a patient, respectful dialogue with, e.g., an anti-vaxxer friend is likely to recognize what Rutkowski describes. On another hand, the kind of thinking he calls “metamodern” is arguably not as irredeemably irrational as he seems to believe.

Scholar of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Kripal, addresses precisely that “metamodern” mashup of quantum physics and reflections on consciousness in a recent interview. Referring to a recent debate on the topic between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, he remarks:

So, first of all, I don’t think Deepak is offering anything particularly dogmatic. I think he’s trying to bring worlds together. And why not? As for Sam’s reply, I think this is how this desperately needed synthesis is resisted, frankly. It’s as if he were saying: ‘Only quantum physicists should talk about quantum mechanics.’ But why? That assumption seems to me to lead to cultural disasters, if not to open cultural schizophrenia. Now, of course, people who are going to talk about the implications of quantum mechanics are going to make mistakes about what quantum mechanics is. That’s OK. So correct them and help them get in on the conversation. But don’t tell us that we can’t have this conversation. We’re made of quantum processes, too, you know. If we can let that conversation happen, I think it will eventually lead to a future answer, or set of answers, and in all kinds of genres, including and especially artistic and science fiction ones. We need a new imagination.

Aside from how high or low one holds Sam Harris or Deepak Chopra, Kripal (a thinker not above criticism, either) is, I think, arguing in favour of a kind of “metamodernism”, a thinking that will bring into conversation discourses hitherto seen as distant if not incompatible. Neither Kripal nor Rutkowski know, I think, that such recombinant, synthetic thinking can claim an older and more respectable ancestry in that foment of reflection, speculation, and creation following in the wake of Kant’s Critical Philosophy, namely Jena Romanticism and German Idealism.

The history of thought that leads from the cultural crisis attending the decline of Renaissance, Classical culture, the advent of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes’ response to these developments, to Kant’s Critical Philosophy is one hard to do justice in a short space. What’s important is that the questions and problems raised by Kant’s attempt to ground knowledge in the wake of the disappearance of a ready-made world reflected in true thoughts and judgements underwritten by a Creator God and in response to Humean skepticism result in an encyclopaedically synthetic thinking that finds its prime example in the German Romantic concept of the novel as the work that contains all genres and seeks to engage if not incorporate the wildly proliferating fields of knowledge being cleared by the nascent sciences. It is the same spirit in a different guise that inspires the various recent attempts at interdisciplinarity in the academy, both rigorous and less so, that are themselves a response to the drawing of rigid, well-guarded, not always purely rational, disciplinary borders (what Kripal calls above “cultural schizophrenia”) within the modern university, an institution invented by German Romanticism out of precisely that drive to inclusivity that underwrites the idea of the Roman (novel) and Novalis’ unfinished Das Allgemeine Brouillon (Notes for a Romantic Encyclopedia). The point is that such thinking, meta-, post-, or just plain modern, need not entail the absolute demise of truth Rutkowski sees in post-truth ufology or society in general, however much it might run the risk of falling into nonsense in its gamble for new insights. The “metamodern” is hardly alone in this regard: not even the natural sciences posit that they are subject to an underlying or overarching unity; a blithe acceptance of ultimate incoherence accompanies the undoubtedly valid successful practice of every science.

Further, ufology, from the start, has been interdisciplinary: “‘hard science’ ufology’ draws on forensics, psychology, physics, meteorology, and a small library of other disciplines. The contemporary study of UFO culture is also undertaken by the human and social sciences, as well, social psychology, religious studies, and philosophy among them. The stubborn recalcitrance of what might be termed “the Hard Problem of UFO reality” has persuaded no few researchers that a more promising line of research lies in opening the problem to modes of inquiry aside from the strictly physical sciences. Here, ironically, the significance of Jung’s Flying-Saucer-as-mandala appears again, the archetype that invokes an encompassing unity of the kind posited by the Romantic novel and housed in the idea of the university.

The attentive reader will have noticed, I wager, that it’s not so much the recombinatory, synthetic character of what Rutkowski calls “metamodern” thinking that necessarily leads to post-truth so much as whatever might underwrite the post-truth mind itself and its departure from the more generally accepted canons of reason and logic. Some few distinctions might lead us to an understanding of the post-truth ufophile. We can distinguish, after a fashion, facts from truth. For example, it may not be a fact that when told the poor had no bread Marie-Antoinette answered, “Let them eat cake!”, but the anecdote no less reveals a truth about the ruling class of the day for all that. We can distinguish, further, between fact, truth, and meaning. Regarding the search for truth, the facts of nature, in his own day, whether philosophical or scientific, the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel observed, “In truth you would be distressed if the whole world, as you demand, were for once seriously to become completely comprehensible.” Schlegel is very much our contemporary here, for his point is that even if physics attained a final, unified theory and all the sciences arrived at a correct and complete description of how the world is such knowledge would still fail to illuminate the fact that the world is, that is, the question of the meaning of what is would stubbornly remain.

In this light, if we return to Rutkowski’s beef that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ another dimension of the UFO phenomenon might appear. The “metamodern” “ufologist” is less moved by the factual truth than the meaningful truth of the worldview they conjure in so freeform a way. Indeed, from the very beginning, the UFO has inspired religious sentiments and the kind of thinking Rutkowski so deplores, as any reader of Desmond Leslie’s introduction to George Adamski’s first book will know. Rutkowski’s feelings echo the disdain “serious” investigators of the phenomenon in those early years felt for the Contactees. But scholars of religion and other sociologists will be quick to point out that the Flying Saucer and, later, the UFO have always been a phenomenon of meaning apart from the undetermined facts of their physical reality. That scientific ufologists come to compete with their post-truth counterparts springs from the same fatefully confused cultural context that leads to evolutionary biologists debating believers in Intelligent Design. They may seem to debate a shared matter, but the fact of their stalled, pointless dialogue reveals otherwise.

“I’m not interested in ufos, I’m interested in what’s inside, by the message they gave me” declares a recent meme from the Raelian Movement, quoting its founder. If only those who claim that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft” were as self-aware. I agree with Rutkowski that the post-truth “ufologist” is of another order than the scientific one, that the two simply cannot enter into a mutually informative dialogue, and that any confusion between the former and the latter is lamentable, but so it has always been. What’s important, I think, is how post-truth ufologists embody a more general, no less concerning social development in their adhering to a post-truth irrationality, whose diagnosis and cure are a pressing concern, within and beyond ufology. And that’s a problem that demands a multipronged approach.

Sighting: Sunday 25 April 2021: Justin E. Smith’s “Against Intelligence”

I don’t know how he does it. Philosopher Justin E. Smith, very much my contemporary, and even once a faculty member of my alma mater here in Montreal, not only functions as an academic in a French university, teaching, researching, and writing articles and books, but he maintains a Substack account where he posts juicy essays weekly. With regards just to that writing, he tells us

In case you’re curious, I spend roughly six hours writing each week’s Substack post, taking the better part of each Saturday to do it. This follows a week of reflection, of jotting notes about points I would like to include, and of course it follows many years of reading a million books, allowing them to go to work on me and colonize my inner life nearly totally.

At any rate, his latest offering harmonizes sweetly with our own obsessive critique of anthropocentric conceptions of intelligence. You can read his thoughts on the matter, here.

“…news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome…”

Of recent developments in the ufological sphere, two stand out to me: the release of a huge cache of CIA documents on UFOs and the prepublication promotion of astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book on Oumuamua and related matters. I was moved to address Loeb’s recent claims (you can hear him interviewed by Ryan Sprague here and hear him speak on the topic last spring here), but, since I have addressed the essential drift of Loeb’s speculations, however curtly, and I’m loathe to tax the patience of my readers or my own intellectual energies rehearsing the driving thesis here at Skunkworks yet again, I want to probe a not unrelated matter, an ingredient of the ufological mix since the earliest days of the modern era.

This post’s title is taken from a longer passage from Carl Jung’s ufological classic Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. In the preface, Jung observes:

In 1954, I wrote an article in the Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, in which I expressed myself in a sceptical way, though I spoke with due respect of the serious opinion of a relatively large number of air specialists who believe in the reality of Ufos…. In 1958 this interview was suddenly discovered by the world press and the ‘news’ spread like wildfire from the far West round the Earth to the far East, but—alas—in distorted form. I was quoted as a saucer-believer. I issued a statement to the United Press and gave a true version of my opinion, but this time the wire went dead:  nobody, so far as I know, took any notice of it, except one German newspaper.

The moral of this story is rather interesting. As the behaviour of the press is sort of a Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable. To believe that Ufos are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.

Loeb’s recent experience harmonizes with Jung’s. Loeb recounts around the 22:00′ mark in his interview with Sprague that when he and his collaborator published their paper arguing for the possible artificial origins of Oumuamua, they experienced a “most surprising thing”, that, despite not having arranged for any publicity for their paper, it provoked “a huge, viral response from the media…”

There are, of course, myriad reasons for the media phenomenon experienced by both Jung and Loeb. An important aspect of their shared historical horizon, however, suggests the ready, public fascination for the idea of extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations springs from an urgent source. Jung, famously, however correctly, argued that flying saucers’ appearing in the skies just at the moment the Iron Curtain came down had to do precisely with the new, mortal threat of atomic war, that, from his psychological perspective, flying saucers were collective, visionary mandalas, whose circular shape made whole, at least to the visionary imagination, what humankind had split asunder in fact. Though we live now after the Cold War, the cognoscenti are quick to remind us the threat of nuclear war remains, a threat along with increasingly acute environmental degradation and global warming. There’s a grim synchronicity in Loeb’s book’s appearing hot on the heels of the publication of a widely-publicized paper in the journal Frontiers of Conservation Science titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.”

Just how do such anxieties arguably underwrite the desire to discover other “advanced” societies? Jung was right, I think, in seeing the appearance of “flying saucers from outer space” as compensating for the worries of his day. Rather than affirming the phenomenon’s dovetailing into his theory of archetypes, however, I would argue that the very idea of UFOs’ being from an advanced, technological civilization, an interpretation put forward spontaneously by the popular, scientific, and military understanding, is a response to the growing concern over the future of the earth’s so-called advanced societies. Such evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence seems to confirm that technology (as we know it) and the kind of intelligence that gives rise to it are not the result of a local, accidental coupling of natural history (evolution) and cultural change (history proper) but that of more universal regularities, echoing, perhaps, however faintly, those cosmically universal natural laws that govern physics and chemistry. That such intelligence and civilizations spring up throughout the stars suggests, furthermore, they all share the same developmental vector, from the primitive to the advanced, and that, if such regularities hold, then just as our visitors are more advanced than we are, then we, too, like them, might likewise negotiate the mortal threats that face our own civilization, enabling us to reach their heights of knowledge and technological prowess. That we might learn just such lessons from extraterrestrial civilizations we might contact has been one explicit argument for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The very idea, then, of a technologically-advanced civilization embodies a faith that technology can solve the problems technology produces, one whose creed might be said to reword Heidegger’s final, grave pronouncement that “Only a god can save us”, replacing ‘god’ with ‘technology’. What’s as remarkable as it is unremarked is how this tenet of faith is shared equally by relatively mainstream figures, such as Loeb, Diana W. Pasulka, and SETI researchers, and more outré folk, such as Jason Reza Jorjani, Steven Greer, and Raël/Claude Vorilhon.

Conversely, discovering the traces of extraterrestrial civilizations that have failed to meet the challenges ours faces could prove no less significant, as Loeb himself has proposed: “…we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.” Aside from the weakness of this speculation, the idea of such failed civilizations is based on the same assumptions as the idea of successful ones, thereby revealing their being ideological (positing a social order as natural). Imagine all we ever were to discover were extraterrestrial societies that had succumbed to war, environmental destruction, or some other form of self-annihilation. Technological development would then seem to entail its own end. Indeed, that this might very well be the case has been proposed as one explanation for “The Great Silence”, why we have yet to encounter other, extraterrestrial civilizations. We might still cling to the hope that humankind might prove the exception, that it might learn from all these other failures (à la Loeb), or we might adopt a pessimistic fatalism, doing our best despite being convinced we are ultimately doomed. In either case, advanced technological society modelled after one form of society on earth is projected as unalterable, inescapable, and universal. The pessimistic conception of technological advancement, a blinkered reification of a moment in human cultural history, arguably expresses from a technoscientific angle the sentiment of Fredric Jameson’s famous observation: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

The consequences of this technofetishism are manifold. However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.

Sightings: Saturday 8 November 2020

Production continues slow here at the Skunkworks, due to personal reasons, the fact that the facility is still in the process of settling in to the new digs (thanks to the way the pandemic slows everything down), and, most pointedly, that, despite a lot happening in the field, very little has in fact changed or developed (more on that, below). To remedy the relative dearth of postings, here, therefore, I’ve resolved to try to post, more-or-less regularly, short takes with little commentary, less demanding to write, of what’s caught my attention the past week or so.

What strikes me first is the aforementioned present steadystate of ufology or of the phenomenon and its mytho/sociological import in general. On the one hand, I’ve speculated that the UFO as a vehicle of meaning, a sign, is as endlessly suggestive as any work of art, or even, more extremely, essentially mysterious. But, for a sign whose signifier never lands on its signified, the UFO’s significance seems little changed since the advent of flying saucers more-or-less post-1947.

Ufologically, no developments I’m aware of present data that has not been on the record since the phenomenon’s earliest days. The recent furour around the topic’s appearing in the mainstream media and its being taken seriously by the American government that has given rise to excited rumours about “Disclosure” are hardly unfamiliar to the cognoscenti with Donald Keyhoe’s oeuvre (well-thumbed) on their bookshelves. Exemplary is the second season of History’s Unidentified, which, in terms of the topics it addresses–UFOs near nuclear and military facilities, black triangles, sightings by commercial airline pilots, etc.–is as eye-rollingly dull as Elizondo & Co.’s speculations are risible, e.g., that black triangles observed flying slowly back and forth over the American back country are conducting a mapping operation, when we, with our relatively primitive technology, have been using much less obtrusive spy satellites for decades. Even the suggestion that UFOs (now UAPs), whether foreign or extraterrestrial, may pose a threat to national security is hardly new and is all-too-easily understood as an expression of America’s anxiety over its waning influence in a world that has moved on from its brief moment of monopolar power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc, even if it’s more likely an unimaginative bid to inspire drama and interest in the series.

Even culturally there is little that strikes me of note. Reviews of the recent documentary The Phenomenon (for example, here and here) hardly move me to rent it, seeming as it does to be a somewhat introductory review of the well-known story pushing the “reality” of the titular phenomenon and (uncritically) its possible extraterrestrial origin. On the other hand, 2018’s The Witness of Another World at least focusses on a single, compelling close encounter case not within the border of the United States, probing more its meaning for the experiencer than seeking to uncover the material “truth” underwriting the experience. In this regard, the documentary is in line with two academic books of note, D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic and David Halperin’s Intimate Alien. Both develop lines of inquiry into the religious and collective psychological significance of the UFO, respectively, but neither in a way that introduces any new findings, none new to me, anyway. Pasulka’s work proposes to trace the links between religious sentiments, technology, and the UFO, but doesn’t add to or extend very far the existing literature. Likewise, Halperin develops Jung’s theses about the UFO’s expressing human, all-too-human anxieties and aspirations in a modern guise, but neither presents a reading of Jung’s views in this regard much less a grounding defense of why we should take his approach seriously, merely assuming its applicability. I have addressed these misgivings, in general and more specifically, here.

One development of especial interest here at Skunkworks has been the appearance of three ufologically-themed books of poetry (reviews forthcoming!). First is Judith Roitman’s 2018 Roswell rewardingly read in tandem with Rane Arroyo’s earlier (2010) The Roswell Poems. Though these works went under the literary radar, two more recent books have earned a higher profile. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars, framed in part by a New-Agey exploration of the imaginative implications of Star People was a finalist for 2020’s National Book Award, and Tony Trigilio’s treatment of the Hill abduction Proof Something Happened was chosen for publication by Marsh Hawk Press in 2021 by no less than the esteemed avant-garde American poet Susan Howe. UFO poetry, seriously!

The one other datum that caught my attention of late was an article from The Baffler shared by a member of the Radio Misterioso Facebook page, “Donald Trump, Trickster God”. For my part, I am unsure just how to take the author’s contention that Donald Trump is a “personification of psychic forces”, namely one of the faces of the Trickster archetype, Loki. The article’s tone, ironic and hyperbolic, suggests it’s as much a satire of the failure of the conventional wisdom to explain the rise and enduring popularity of Trump, or, at least of those who represent the failure of such wisdom (“political reporters, consultants and pundits”, “sober, prudent, smartphone-having people”) as an explanation of his demagogic power. Corey Pein, the author, marshals Jung’s explanation of Hitler’s rise to power (set forth in Jung’s essay, “Wotan”) to shore up his own analogous attempt to understand the advent of Trump. Jung famously essayed the UFO phenomenon using the same approach (and that Halperin and Eric Ouellet have since developed), a labour I find of creative if not explanatory value. On the one hand, one needn’t invoke myth, either in its inherited or newly-minted guise, to understand, e.g., the rise of Hitler: a passing acquaintance with German history and a viewing of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will should suffice. Where Germany suffered a humiliating defeat, the Nazis offered the Germans pride in their culture and new military might. Where the populace had suffered terrible unemployment and want due to the postwar hyperinflation and the Great Depression, the Nazi regime gave it work and food. Where the nation had drifted aimlessly in the rudderless chaos of the Weimar republic (Germany having been one country for less than a century and having had little to no acquaintance with democratic institutions), der Führer offered it leadership and focus. Finally, the distraught and desperate Germans did not side with the international Communists but with the nationalist socialism the Nazis represented because of the atavistic sentiments the Nazis revived and cultured, and, most importantly, because the German corporate class, fearing Communism, sided with the Nazis and bankrolled them. These conditions, combined with the Nazis’ still unrivalled evil genius for propaganda, offer a more down-to-earth, compelling, and useful illumination of a very dark moment in European history. Of course, such explanations go only so far; there remains an obscure, singular residue of irrationality that resists explanation, but, if one is seeking a theory that might offer some praxis, better to take a materialist rather than a metaphysical or mythological approach. Happily, as I write this, the day after Joe Biden seems to have won this year’s election, with luck, the joke is on the Trickster…

Pedantic Outrage or Sloppy Scholarship?

Anyone who has observed ants will have noticed that as the heat rises so does the feverishness of their activity. The reason is that the increase in ambient kinetic energy accelerates the biochemical reactions that drive their metabolisms, quite literally speeding them up. With Montreal in the grip of a heat wave and the Solstice just over the horizon, as it were, it would appear, despite being an endotherm, at least my ant-soul has succumbed to the climate.

A member of a Facebook group I belong to shared this quotation from the latest book by Jeffrey J. Kripal, The Flip:

kripal on kant

It could be I’m just picking a nit, but the cited passage above is consistent with those others about Kant in The Super Natural and Authors of the Impossible, and Kant’s philosophy seems to play a not unimportant role in Kripal’s more general views, given references to the philosopher in his books and this quotation from his latest. So, as a life-long student of philosophy in general, Kant, German Romanticism and Idealism in particular, and a painstaking scholar myself, passages like this one just get under my skin. In the first place, it’s just wrong:  space and time are the forms of intuition (or sensibility), one of the two ways human beings access possible objects of knowledge, the other being thought, to which the categories of the understanding pertain. Moreover, the experience posited as contradicting Kant, doesn’t:  the mother’s precognitive dream is still spatiotemporal, or it wouldn’t even make sense to call it precognitive; the dream’s manifest content merely steps out of the temporal order of waking life. It is, nevertheless, temporal, both in itself (dreams are a sequence, however disjunct, of images) and as an experience (dreams occur between falling asleep and waking).

Kripal can surely be forgiven for a single, passing, less-than-precise passage, especially in view of all the other wide-ranging, ground-breaking work he has achieved, which is far from insubstantial. I’m even tempted to give passages such as this a free pass, depending on the book’s intended audience:  a work for a more general readership is surely expected and allowed to be less technically specific than one intended for his learned peers. However, the mistake in the cited passage is an error and misrepresentation, not a simplification; it wouldn’t pass in an undergraduate philosophy class and so, by the same token, really shouldn’t appear in print, regardless of the intended reader.

Nevertheless, if The Super Natural is anything to go by, what Kripal terms “the phenomenological cut” does appear to play no slight role in his more general thinking, which would entail, at some point, his presenting a more explicit rehearsal of just what he makes of Kant’s ideas, let alone addressing how that “cut” has been explored and made both more profound and subtle, both by the thinkers immediately following Kant and those since, such as Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, among others. If Kripal really wants to bring Kant’s critical philosophy to bear in a sustainably persuasive (i.e., rigorous) manner, then such work really needs be in evidence. It may well be that in one of his many papers or singly-authored or co-edited books he has set forth his position in this regard; if an interested reader can point us to the relevant publication, it would be sincerely appreciated.

Unhappily, the passage from Kripal’s latest is really only an example of a more general tendency that’s seeped into my sensorium. I have been led to make the same complaint of two recent books concerning the religious dimension of the UFO phenomenon, David Halperin’s Intimate Alien and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic. I would underline, again, how much both books deserve and demand a more thoroughgoing treatment than a (for me) passing remark in a blog post, a task I’ve resolved to fulfill. That being said, in the case of Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books (as I have argued), cultural (read: commercial) pressures seem most to blame for any evident deviations from full-throttle scholarship. However, it is nevertheless the case that Heidegger (or, at least, the post-“turn” Heidegger) plays a role in American Cosmic no less important than that of Kant in Kripal’s thinking and seems to suffer from the same handling. Despite being addressed only in the book’s introduction, Heidegger’s thinking on technology and related topics seems (to me) to come up repeatedly in discussions of the book and in conversations with the author herself. Again, I may well be irritably picking another nit, but I’d wager I’m worrying more at a red thread in Pasulka’s argument more in the manner of Derrida’s writing at length on a footnote in Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Here, I merely cite my observations concerning the use of Heidegger in American Cosmic from an earlier post:  In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is:  a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin:  “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light [that that frame itself can become visible, an object for our thinking and, therefore, no longer fencing and controlling that thinking, invisible as the eye is to itself in seeing].

My points here are manifold. On the one hand, it is gratifying to see the German philosophical tradition being recognized for its relevance to these matters and being brought to bear. On another hand, I’m eager to see the full force of this tradition being applied, for which a deeper and more fluent understanding of that tradition is needed than I myself have witnessed. On the third hand, I look forward to following up on my intuition that Kant and Heidegger function as brîsures in Kripal’s and Pasulka’s thinking, respectively, upon which future critiques if not deconstructions (in the rigorous sense) might hinge.

 

 

The Black Vault Shines a Brilliant Light on the Wilson Documents

The Black Vault’s John Greenewald sets out a delightfully compelling thesis concerning the Wilson Documents, widely taken to be notes of a 2002 meeting between Dr. Eric Davis and Admiral Thomas Wilson, wherein the latter (as usual) spills some juicy beans about reverse engineering of crashed alien spaceships…

Greenewald vectors in on these alleged notes from two directions:  their textual features (what the learned among us would term “the philological”) and the sociocultural context of their composition. Skunkworks readers will understand right away why we take such pleasure in Greenewald’s approach…

By turning his attention for a moment away from what the notes appear to relate to how they relate it (from their content to their form), Greenewald reveals that the “notes” are demonstrably written in the form of a movie or television script, both in their formatting and textual features. His thesis is bolstered by the time of the notes’ creation:  in 2002, there existed, especially in the wake of the ending of The X-Files, a demand for just such programming…

It’s pleasantly synchronicitious that Greenewald publish his views now, in light of the last post here pressing for closer attention to precisely the immediate context of any aspect of the UFO phenomenon / mythology, as well as the argument I’ve made consistently (most recently with regard to premodern “sighting reports”) concerning the cultural embeddedness of sighting reports, whether documents or pictures, and the need for the kind of attention to (historicultural) detail Greenewald demonstrates.

Until now, because of the hardcore, fact-based (and much admired, here in the Skunkworks) research engaged in over at The Black Vault, there has been little intersection or overlap of Greenewald’s concerns or approaches and my own; the coincidence here is therefore all the more happily noted!

 

In the Air: Problems with Jung, Archetypes, and Flying Saucers

Jung’s Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky is rightly famous for being probably the first book by a well-respected cultural figure to address the UFO mystery. Not unsurprisingly, Jung fit the phenomenon into his ideas of the Collective Unconscious, the Archetypes, and synchronicity to propose that the saucers’ circularity was a timely symbol of unity, one that compensated for the existential anxieties of a war-weary and war-fearing populace in the early days of the Cold War, which had split the globe in half.

As David Halperin reminds us in his recent book Intimate Alien:  the Hidden History of the UFO (pp. 42 ff.), Jung’s insight was later developed by Eric Ouellet to interpret the Belgian UFO Wave of 1989-90. The Belgian UFOs were characteristically large, silent, black triangles with white lights at the points and a red one in the centre. It is suggested, following Jung’s thoughts on flying saucers, that the pattern of three white lights and a fourth red were a manifestation of the archetype of the quaternity: the three white lights symbolizing NATO, at the time headquartered in Brussels, and the one red star, symbolizing the then-collapsing Soviet Union (the Berlin Wall fell 9 November 1989). Just as the conditions of the Cold War inspired people to see archetypal images symbolic of the then-absent unity, the surprise over this unforeseen resolution of the Cold War and resultant profound relief and euphoria evoked visions of a western Europe ascending in victory over its Communist rival.

As valuable as Jung’s proposal is, especially for a mythopoeic rendition of the UFO myth (such as that one underway here in various guises at Skunkworks), I have increasing reservations about its explanatory power. I’ve already voiced some of these in my notes on a recent podcast with Micah Hanks and Thomas E. Bullard. There, I observed that Jung’s kind of “thinking dissolves what is uniquely modern about the phenomenon as we experience and communicate it now into some vastly more general distillation of species-wide experience, occluding what light the present version of these stories might throw upon our present predicaments.”

cropped-arnold_aaf_drawing.jpg
Kenneth Arnold’s sketch of his “flying saucers”

If we return to the early days of the Cold War and Arnold’s inaugural sighting, we’re reminded that Arnold witnessed crescent, not disc, shaped craft, however prevalent the disc becomes in the following years. The manner in which Arnold’s story was modified by a journalist, the expression “flying saucer” coined and disseminated, and how those words seemed to guide and govern what people claim to have seen subsequently is a rich case history for sociology and communications studies, imaginably subject to an analytical psychological treatment as well:  the journalist’s pen (or typing fingers) were merely taking dictation from the Collective Unconscious, which was answering the psychic needs of the American population of the time, including those of the journalist.

Setting aside this famous, intriguing metamorphosis of what Arnold claims to have seen, what did witnesses describe? In his disputed memo of September 1947, General Nathan Twining summarized the discs’ appearance as follows:

(1) Metallic or light reflecting surface.
(2) Absence of trail, except in a few instances where the object apparently was operating under high performance conditions.
(3) Circular or elliptical in shape, flat on bottom and domed on top.
(4) Several reports of well kept formation flights varying from three to nine objects.
(5) Normally no associated sound, except in three instances a substantial rumbling roar was noted.
(6) Level flight speeds normally above 300 knots are estimated.

At least four explanations were offered at the time (if not in Twining’s memo) to make sense of these mystifying reports: misidentifications due to “war nerves”; domestic or foreign inventions, friendly or hostile; or extraterrestrial space ships. I contend that these hypotheses are sociopsychologically suggestive in their own right, capable of revealing a deeper meaning of the appearance of the saucers without needing recourse to concepts problematic as they are grand, such as the Collective Unconscious or its archetypes.

The immediate aeronautical context informs the proposal that the sighting of what will come to be known as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) could be accounted for as paranoid misperceptions. In 2020, it is perhaps difficult to imagine how novel the skies were in 1947. The recent war had seen the first, large-scale deployment of air forces and conflict between them, perhaps most famously in the Battle of Britain. Radar itself had been deployed only in the early days of that chapter of the war and was still a very new, unfamiliar technology. Air travel itself, taken for granted today (at least before the Covid-19 outbreak), was, as it were, first taking off. The skies were under constant, anxious scrutiny, by both professional military personnel and civilians. All in all, the skies and flight were new and fraught with threat. Little wonder both qualified and unqualified observers should file unnerved and unnerving reports of aerial anomalies. Indeed, this insight might well be applied to sightings of “foo fighters” in the war-torn skies of World War Two, as well. At any rate, the psychological implications of UFOs appearing to vigilant, anxious observers are two fold. On the one hand, this explanation eases the fear that gives rise to sightings:  the novelty of aerial phenomena and the heightened, wary awareness of the observer understandably lead to misidentifications; in this case, there is, in fact, no threat. On the other, that the skies are under such intense scrutiny is reassuring, as well, since, should an enemy attack, the threat will be quickly detected and answered; the nation’s skies are, in a sense, air tight.

A similar emotional logic is at work in the idea that the flying discs represented breakthrough aeronautical technology, whether ours or theirs. If they’re ours, then our technical and, by extension, military superiority is affirmed and our anxieties about a potential “hot” war with the Soviet Union are, to a degree, assuaged. If, on the other hand, the discs are evidence of an enemy nation’s technological leap, the heightened anxiety drives the fearful populace of the Free World that much more eagerly into the protective arms of the Military-Industrial Complex, steeling the public’s resolve and patriotism in the face of such a wily adversary. The same logic might have been at work in the Phantom Air Ship sightings of 1896-7, on the eve of the Spanish America War. Either the airships are examples of Yankee ingenuity, affirming American industrial and military superiority in the face of a looming conflict with a world power, or the airships are Spanish, with the same patriotic effect noted above.

Finally, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis plays into a similar, if more complex, pattern of reassurance and fear. That an extraterrestrial race is visiting earth with technology far in advance of our own suggests that they, too, at one time, faced the threat of nuclear self-annihilation (they must have at some time discovered nuclear energy in the course of their technological development) but came through; if they can, we can, and, maybe, they have come to show us the way, having witnessed, from their planets or distant stars, our detonating A-bombs. Little surprise, then, the earliest stories of landed saucers reported their pilots were peaceful, enlightened humanoid beings, come to warn us of the danger we found ourselves in. Or maybe, seeing our science and technology had split the atom, we were being observed as a preparatory step in being contacted and invited to join a larger, interplanetary if not interstellar community. Again, all would be well, better than we could have imagined. Alternatively, if the discs proved to be an extraterrestrial enemy’s scouts and probes, then, again, who better to defend us than the Cold War status quo of an America recently ascended to the status of a global power, allied with the Free World? Or, as Ronald Reagan so famously imagined, perhaps a threat to earth would unite her otherwise divided nations (again, mollifying the tensions underwriting the sightings in the first place). More cynically, one might suggest that being carried away by the mystery of the flying saucers served as an escape from more urgent, earthbound concerns.

In all these cases, the appearance of mysterious flying discs set in motion a process of thought and feeling that leads to either a relief of anxiety or a redoubled resolve in the face of it. In this light, one wonders how rational at base the three or four hypotheses cited above are, how much they are inspired or motivated by the anxieties of the time. Framing the advent of flying saucers and, later, UFOs, in the moment of their appearance in this way enables an understanding that does not stand in need of more general, and by extension more questionable, psychological theories. Indeed, the UFO becomes all the more revealing being related to its more specific spatiotemporal (historical) locality than if it is spun off to hover over all times and places, emerging from a region beyond space and time, the Collective Unconscious.

However tempting, it would be disingenuous to leave the matter here. In its own terms, the approach I venture here demands, too, that the phenomenon be examined with an eye to the local culture and what is “in the air” at the time, much the way Halperin and Ouellet reconfigure their account when they move it from the mainland United States to Belgium. This is to say, the phenomenon will always reveal something about the culture over which it appears, an insight not lost on those who mark the local inflections that differentiate North and South American ufology. The reflections, above, are, therefore, pertinent, strictly, to postwar North America. More interestingly, the canny reader will be quick to point out how the hypotheses offered above hover between three or four, a classic quaternity….

 

When Synchronicity Fails

In a recent podcast, Diane W. Pasulka and host Ezra Klein discuss UFOs in the context of both Pasulka’s book American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) and recent developments, mainly the U.S. Navy videos made (more) famous by To The Stars Academy and the History series Unidentified:  Inside America’s UFO Investigation.

Among the many topics they explore are “book events” and the UFO and technology-as-religion. A book event is a synchronicitious discovery of a book that uncannily answers a need or question of the reader; said need can be answered, too, by other artifacts, as well, and even, imaginably, by a person:  one thinks of the proverb, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.”

Around the 1:17 mark, Pasulka begins to expound on how technology might be thought of in religious terms. Her words leave me with the impression that in the research for her book a “book event” that failed to materialize was one that might have presented her with any number of versions of the paper on the Raelian Movement International my collaborator Susan Palmer and I presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in 1999, published in the journal Nova Religio the following year, then reprinted in the religious studies textbook edited by Diana Tumminia Alien Worlds (2007), and, finally, included in an updated version in Hammer’s and Rothstein’s The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements (2012).

Our paper concludes:

…the advent of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ushers in today’s dominant discourse and practices within which religions orthodox and otherwise must define themselves. The present stands within the horizon of the death of God, understood as the domination of the assumption of the immanence of the world and the consequent disappearance of the meta-physical, the super-natural, and the supersensuous (at least overtly) or their fall into the merely paranormal. The paranormal or paraphysical is that realm of nature yet to be understood (and so ultimately controlled) by science. This assumption, that science will continue along the path of discovery, knowledge, and power, naturalizes or [reifies] science and technology. When our science and technology poison the biosphere, split the atom to release potentially species-suicidal energies, and manipulate the genetic code of living organisms, humanity has taken upon itself powers and potentialities hitherto exclusively the domain of superhuman deities. That science and technology, whose worldview determines how things are, bring us to an unprecedented impasse demands they must in some way be transcended (i.e., survived). The flying saucer appears within this horizon as a symbol of just such transcendence, promising that precisely the causes of our quandary will be our means of salvation.

Readers of the posts here at Skunkworks will recognize the nascent themes explored in that early paper cultured at this site from the start.

We find it gratifying our insights are making their way into the wider world, by whatever mysterious, obscure channels.

“What we have here is a failure…” Wait. We’ve been here before…

It was just the end of last July that Rich Reynold’s over at UFO Conjectures took Skunkworks to task for not approaching “the UFO problem” as he understands it and demands everyone else, too. For my part, I thought I’d answered his concerns in a number of posts, but here we are again.

Reynolds is concerned with the question—exclusively—of the reality and nature of UFOs; Skunkworks ruminates over the meaning of the UFO mythology, if not the phenomenon. Why Reynolds insists that his is the only way or that what I’m up to here even intends to contribute to his efforts eludes me.

Rather than rehash this matter, I would direct interested parties to the following extant posts:

The post that directly answers Reynolds’ concerns is On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…” which itself links to the first, substantial post here that distinguishes the two approaches Reynolds insists on conflating or narrowing down.

My most direct rejoinder to the general question is RE: UFO Realities.

A pertinent but more tenuous probing of ufology as such can be read here:  Notes towards a prolegomena to a future ufology…

Some philosophical asides would include one post applying the Kantian distinction between determinative and reflective judgements (“What IS that?!”–Notes on perceiving the anomalous) and others bringing to bear Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality (Encounter in the Desert of the Real, An Important Consequence of the “Postmodern” Reality of the UFO, and RE: Robbie Graham on UFOs and Hyperreality: An Addendum and Excursis).

 

 

Piping in on Hanks and Bullard on the Myth and Mystery of UFOs

Micah Hanks talks with Thomas E. Bullard concerning the folklore and reality of the UFO phenomenon. Hanks and, surely, Bullard are two with whom I share much in common on this matter, but there are some directions their conversation takes that give me pause for thought.

Not unsurprisingly, the problem of the relation between a folkloric (or sociological) study of UFO and entity encounter reports and claims concerning their physical reality or nature comes up. I’ve addressed the matter at least twice, here and, at greater length, here. Briefly, the problem Hanks and Bullard address is in the final analysis a methodologically real one. Nevertheless, it is at the same time perfectly legitimate and in fact quite fruitful for scholars such as Bullard to merely hold the question of the physical reality or nature of the phenomenon in abeyance, to merely leave it unasked, so that the meaning of the phenomenon might be examined all the more attentively. Of course, at a point, that plethora of meaning bleeds and pools into ontological questions, as Bullard is the first to admit up front.

But this methodological consideration dovetails into a more troublesome area, that has as much to do with the prejudices of Anglo-American thought as the phenomenon itself. As the research of Bullard and others has been taken to suggest, the UFO phenomenon, or more properly the UFO mythology, considered as a body of stories, because of the parallels it shares with folklore around the world, e.g., those between alien abduction and what Bullard calls “supernatural kidnap”, arguably arises from some “universal framework”. At those words, Hanks immediately brings up Jung’s Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes. Invoking universals and, even more so, universals posited to arise from the age-old, collective experience of homo sapiens, is, to say the least, problematic. The rooting of archetypes in experience betrays a need or drive for reference, as if stories must ultimately spring from what Hanks calls “a physical instigator or agent.” The same thinking applies to discussions of the Vision of Ezekiel:  did he have a spontaneous religious vision, suffer some kind of psychotic break, sight a complex space ship he described the best he could, etc.? What’s passed over is that this vision is presented in a text, however strikingly original, in a recognized genre, i.e., Ezekiel’s vision does not demand any external stimulus, psychological or otherwise, but may just as easily, and more profitably I would argue, be understood as a work of prophetic literature, with no more external, real world reference than Dante’s Commedia.

More gravely is the way that such mythological thinking dissolves what is uniquely modern about the phenomenon as we experience and communicate it now into some vastly more general distillation of species-wide experience, occluding what light the present version of these stories might throw upon our present predicaments. On the one hand, Jung himself navigates the problem by attempting to explain how the anxieties unique and immediate to the postwar world evoke a response from the archetypal tailored to that world. However, on the other, I would offer, given that stories are narrated in languages in the contexts of cultures, what is most informative about the mythology is its pertinence to what is special to our present historical moment not general to the human condition as such.

Bullard himself, at the beginning and end of his conversation with Hanks, makes statements that imply this more historicist approach. Hanks quotes a passage from Bullard’s research into alien abductions, words to the effect that what is important about these stories is not so much their reference to real-world experiences as their “status as narratives.” Then, near the end of their talk (around 01:23) he pleas for an openness to novelty in thinking. I contend that what is most significant about the UFO mythology is its functioning as a manifest content of a kind of collective dream (what Jung termed a “visionary rumour”) that expresses and articulates the anxieties and aspirations unique to (our) modernity.

Nevertheless, at the same time, I’ll be the first to counter that, just as the relation between the meaning and being of UFO reports and other stories are complexly intertwined, in the same way, the mythological and historicist (ideological critical) interpretations of the mythology are both exclusive but no less mutually implicated.

At any rate, not that Hanks or Bullard need any of the infinitesimally small promotion Skunkworks might offer, I urge parties interested in their approach to the topic to listen in and let their own thoughts pipe in. Bullard begins speaking around the 00:48′ mark.

The Oceans, Anthills, and Elf Churches

Again, the staff here at Skunkworks has received its writing assignment from the Office of Synchronicities.

In an article about the contributions of larvaceans to filtering carbon and plastic from the oceans, Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, makes an offhand observation :

“If an alien civilization from some other solar system were to send an expedition to Earth to look at the dominant life forms on this planet, they wouldn’t be up here walking around with us. They’d be exploring the deep ocean.”

Why would these aliens focus their attention on the deep oceans? Because, as the same article reminds us, “scientists estimate that more than 99 percent of the planet’s biosphere resides” there.

The same day (9 June 2020), Chris Savia at The Anomalist linked to an at-the-time unpublished article “‘First in, last out’ solution to the Fermi Paradox” by Alexander Berezin. Berezin’s states his thesis as follows:

“First in, last out” solution to the Fermi Paradox:  what if the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?

I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilization would consciously wipe out other lifeforms. Most likely, they simply won’t notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it….

Berezin’s argument is both sophisticated and nuanced (and couched in some assumptions that would normally call for closer scrutiny, here); nevertheless, Berezin and Robison make a similar point. Unlike the science fiction worlds of the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises (and, n.b., no less so in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Carl Sagan’s novel Contact) or the fantastical imaginings of those who believe earth is being visited by dozens of extraterrestrial civilizations, they posit that homo sapiens would not be immediately recognized as “the dominant life form” or, more substantially, the significantly analogous Other of extraterrestrial explorers. Ironically, it is precisely the Star Trek franchise itself that recognized this problem, in the motion picture Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, where the aliens are cetaceans, utterly oblivious to the human population on earth and its civilization their activities threaten.

Berezin’s comparing such inadvertent destructiveness to how “a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate” is telling, as it dovetails from speculation about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to huldufolk, Real Politik and ufonauts. Famously, in some places on earth, such as Iceland, precisely such construction projects are halted because they threaten not the habitat of an endangered species, but the abode of a non-human if anthropomorphic Other with which we share this planet, as was the case just outside of Reykjavík in 2013.

rockgreen

Perhaps most famously the relation between the Little People and ufonauts was brought forward by Jacques Vallee in his (in some circles) classic Passport to Magonia. This identification is brought home all the more forcefully in a 1970 close encounter report from Finland, raised for renewed scrutiny just yesterday at UFO Conjectures. The two witnesses report encountering a small humanoid being descended from a classic flying saucer, which one illustrator depicts thusly:Imj9

A diminutive man, complete with pointy hat and funny nose. That the illustrator is Finnish (doubtless raised on tales of Finland’s own Fae Folk) likely influences his sketch, but the likeness of ufonauts to Little People is famously not restricted to this one, exemplary case.

As I have argued ad nauseum here, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, that UFOs are spaceships piloted by extraterrestrial beings, is risibly anthropocentric, not least in its assumption of the immediate, mutual recognition of “intelligence” between ourselves and extraterrestrials, whether piloting flying saucers or signalling by some means from their own far-distant planet. Robison and Berezin both call this assumption into question forcefully.

At the same time, Berezin’s fateful example (of the construction crew and the anthill) also invokes both how humankind runs roughshod over nonhuman life and how such behaviour is called into question and curtailed by a respect if not reverence for nonhuman life when it is humanoid. This traditional (if unconscious) reverence finds its ufological expression in the admonitions concerning nuclear weapons and energy received by the early Contactees in the 1950s and the no-less apocalyptic visions of environmental catastrophe often shown to abductees some decades later. That the appearance of flying saucers as such, as circular signs in the heavens, was a compensatory psychological response to a planet divided during the Cold War was famously set forth by Carl Jung in the earliest years of the modern ufological era.

All this is to say that both the points of view of Robison and Berezin that decentre the human being and the reports of ufonauts and Little People that centre the humanoid both critique, each in their own way, that anthropocentric hubris that grasps all other beings (and other human beings, too) as raw material, as means to ends, as being, ironically, of no account. The former places homo sapiens among all the other species of life of which it is a part, not apart from, while the latter puts a human mask on the nonhuman, again, to put homo sapiens in its place, to better secure a livable home.

This line of argument finds its limit, however, in the cultures of Turtle Island. Generally, these non-European societies both perceived nonhuman creatures and even geographical features, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, as “people” in their own right, while at the same time telling stories of diminutive Little People and Star People. This ethnological fact is cause to open another research department at the Skunkworks….

The UFO, Mystery, and Différance

David J. Halperin, in a chapter on Raymond Palmer and the Shaver Mystery in his Intimate Alien, recounts how in an interview Eugene Steinberg asked Palmer if he thought the UFO mystery would ever be solved. “No!” Palmer replied, “…I think the mystery is only going to deepen.” Halperin amplifies on Palmer’s line of thought: mystery “is a metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind and soul.”

This sentiment echoes beyond the sphere of the UFO phenomenon and even Forteana in general, reflecting back to amplify a thought-provoking dimension of the UFO.

In the 1990 Pre-face to his assemblage of the Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, Shaking the Pumpkin, Jerome Rothenberg observes that

What the poetry transmits is not so much a sense of reverence or piety as of mystery and wonder….

The same phrase (Indian or not) turns up independently in the assertion by the surrealist master, André Breton, “that the mysteries which are not will give way some day to the great Mystery“: a reconciliation, as in the Indian instance, of dream & chance with the reality or our immediate lives.”

‘Mystery’ at root is that which remains tight-lipped. We might understand philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to be referring to Breton’s “great Mystery” when he writes in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” This is to say that the, if not an, answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is not forthcoming. Little wonder, at least as Wittgenstein’s contemporary Martin Heidegger had it, the question could be said to have motivated explicitly or tacitly the whole of Western philosophy.

More pertinently here is the way that mystery-as-such maintains itself as mystery. In the wake of Kant‘s Critical Philosophy, the question of the Absolute took on an urgency in German-language philosophy. As the poet and philosopher of the time Friedrich von Hardenberg (better know by his pen name Novalis) put it: “Everywhere we search for the Absolute but find only things.” The sense of Novalis’ fragment, however, is embedded in a German-language witticism, for Novalis writes for ‘absolute’ das Unbedingte (the undetermined) and for ‘things’ the very ordinary Dinge. That is, the Absolute is precisely that which depends upon, is related or relative to, nothing else; however, if the Absolute is to be known at all, it thereby becomes relative to or determined by the knower. For this reason, the mystical experience is the dissolution of the knower in the known. In one classical formulation, that of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:

The Divinest knowledge of God, which is received through Unknowing, is obtained in that communion which transcends the mind, when the mind, turning away from all things and then leaving even itself behind, is united to the Dazzling Rays, being from them and in them, illumined by the unsearchable depth of wisdom.

Whatever his other predilections, with regard to the question of the Absolute, Novalis was a philosopher, no mystic. The answer he and his circle proposed to the problem was that of “endless approximation.” That is, since all knowledge is relative (in the context of Kant’s philosophy, to the knowing subject), knowledge never reaches an end, but endlessly orbits or pursues its object, always from some new perspective, some new “determination”.

Novalis’ coeval, the philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, sees the same dynamic at work in the interpretation of texts. Since every word finds its sense only in the sentence in which it is found, and each sentence only in the text of which it is a part, the sense of the text in question is oriented (or determined) by its place in the totality of the work of its author, which, in turn, is determined by its place in the literary production of the language it is written in, and so forth. Interpretation, then, is an infinite task. Students of literary criticism will be reminded of the much later formulation of Jacques Derrida‘s différance: because the significance of any sign is determined by its relation to all other signs in the language, that significance spatially differs from itself (i.e., it is determined diacritically by its difference from all other signs in the abstract, synchronous structure of the language), and, in the phonic or graphic chain of any concrete (diachronic) utterance, that significance is, likewise, temporally deferred, as each successive sign and utterance is determined by the next (hence Derrida’s witty conflation of ‘differ’ and ‘defer’ in his coinage ‘differance’).

When I first read about Project Lure, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s attempt to tease flying saucers to land at its Suffield airbase in Alberta, I was struck by the ambivalence of the name. UFOs, it seemed to me, are as much “lures” themselves, teasingly visible but always just out of reach. They escape not only our attempts to grasp them as physical phenomena, leaving only traces, as reports, blurry or questionable photographs, or radar traces, but they slip between the very concepts whereby we make sense of reality, neither material nor immaterial, real or subjective, but “imaginal” or “spectral” (as M. J. Banias was the first to point out). As such, the UFO-as-sign is, after a fashion, characterized by différance, always slipping just out of our grasp (spatially), protean and ever-changing in appearance (temporally), both over time and often within the context of single sighting; like the ever-elusive “final” significance of the sign, the truth of the UFO remains tantalizingly ever out of reach.

The UFO, then, in one regard, is essentially mysterious. That is, like the question of Being (what Wittgenstein called “the mystical”) that stirred the first philosophers, the “great Mystery” that inspired both the traditional singers of North and Central “America”, the Surrealists, and others, the UFO embodies that “metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind soul.” But what “salvation” does this “state” promise? Halperin has his own answer, but, if we follow the insights of Novalis and his circle, the mystery of the UFO is a sign, endlessly proliferative of meanings, with any luck never, like Proteus, wrestled into submission and forced to give up its secret. In this respect, the UFO might be said to inspire what the poet John Keats articulated as the genius of Shakespeare, what he termed “Negative Capability”: “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

“UFO-themed poetry”: seriously

Over at Mysterious Universe, Nick Redfern essays a topic dear to Skunkworks (being the site’s raison d’être), UFO poetry. However, despite accessing Poets.org’s page devoted to the topic, he somehow gets sidetracked by Jack Spicer’s joking about how “Martians” dictated his poetry, passes over the poems actually linked, and somehow, like Curt Collins at The Saucers that Time Forgot, serves up laughable doggerel instead of the more, well, serious examples, both at Poets.org (which include American poetry eminences, such as Stanley Kunitz) and like those few I remark here.

Even searching the Poetry Foundation‘s website with the keyword ‘aliens’ turns up a number of poems, some dealing overtly with aliens (one by Bob Perelman, a widely-recognized postmodern American poet) and abduction. More meaty is the link to an article on the British “Martian poets”, a school that explicitly deployed the point-of-view of the alien to reveal just how strange modern life is.

nwgs

Not unlike his British counterparts, the late Missouri poet David Clewell probed well-known ufological topics, flying-saucers-as-such, Roswell, the Schirmer Encounter, and the Face on Mars. Clewell’s UFO poems are part of a more wide-ranging wander through the America of his time and place (Clewell was born in 1955), which includes drive-ins, B-movies, Cold War paranoia, and the Kennedy assassination, among more mundane matters.

Unsurprisingly, Roswell has been the focus of at least two poetry books. Rene Arroyo’s 2008 The Roswell Poems was the first to my knowledge to focus on this now-iconic incident; and I just found out about Judith Roitman’s 2018 Roswell doing my due diligence for this post.

One book-length poem that should be better known, given its author and thematic breadth and depth is Ernesto Cardenal’s Los Ovnis de Oro / Golden UFOs. Cardenal was a world-class poet, who died only this year; Golden UFOs (subtitled “The Indian Poems”) picks up on the story of the god Ibeorgun who “came in a cloud of gold / now in a flying saucer of gold” and goes on to

interweave myth, legend, history, and contemporary reality to speak to many subjects, including the assaults on the Iroquois Nation, the political and cultural life of ancient Mexico, the Ghost Dance movement, the disappearance of the buffalo, U.S. policy during the Vietnam War, and human rights in Central America.

With Cardenal’s book, the potential of the UFO as myth, as literary topic fit as any for serious, poetic treatment is established beyond a doubt.Finally (though the few examples above are hardly exhaustive) we come to Skunkworks, itself. Skunkworks functions as a kind of notebook, where I essay and develop ideas that contribute to the composition of a book-length poem with the the working title Orthoteny. This poem, parts of which are readable here under the category poetry, seeks to set forth UFO mythology as a mythology (in the words of William Burroughs) “for the Space Age.” In this regard, Orthoteny is more akin to Cardenal’s poems than the doggerel often offered up as examples of “UFO poems” or the single poems or books I describe, above. Just what that mythology is about or what it reveals about human being and the cosmos is discernible in what I’ve been posting here since the beginning. To say too much too quickly, the vast literature of ufology expresses the anxieties and aspirations of our modernity in a surreal manner that opens out onto imaginative spaces apart from and beyond the fetishization of humanity and technology that compose the manifest content of this, the nightmare of our history.

RE: Medieval UFOs: footnotes for Swancer, Sprague & Hanks

I’m unsure what eddies in the aether are stirring up certain synchronicities, but last week (17 and 18 May 2020) Ryan Sprague with Micah Hanks spoke about Medieval UFOs and Brent Swancer posted a column on “strange accounts of very old UFO crashes”.

I listened through Sprague’s and Hank’s conversation and read Swancer’s column with some impatience, despite their many virtues, as the concerns they all address are interesting and, to use the word of the day, serious, but more complex, I’d argue, than they venture to unfold. For that reason, as a kind of Public Service Announcement, I point interested parties to posts here at Skunkworks that have grappled with some of the topics Sprague, Hanks, and Swancer touch on.

Sprague’s and Hanks’ conversation is wide-ranging and orbits in general the way or ways unusual aerial phenomena are variously interpreted over time, from antiquity to the present, the hermeneutics of which I essay here.

Around the 35:00 minute mark of Sprague’s and Hanks’ discussion, the subject of Medieval sky ships is broached, specifically one narrative of the chronicler Gervase of Tilbury, that Brent Swancer also addresses. It’s curious none remark the repetition of more-or-less the same story during the Airship wave of 1896-7. An any rate, I analyze the story, especially in its character as a story or narrative, here and here.

Sprague and Hanks also probe the question of artistic representations of what some have claimed are Flying Saucers, Extraterrestrials, or Visitors. This question is one I’ve harped on repeatedly here, of the problems around understanding narratives or artifacts from distant times and cultures. The briefest treatment, I think pretty much in line with Hanks’ views, is readable here.

Around the 59:00 minute mark, Sprague and Hanks conclude talking about nonmaterial modes of communication with so-called extraterrestrials, either by means of telepathy or altered states, a topic played with poetically, here. In fact, there are a number of poetic treatments of classic and not-so classic UFO reports (including the crash at Aurora, Texas Swancer includes in his article) throughout Skunkworks, accessible under the ‘poetry‘ category.

(Much) more, of course, could be appended. The curious will likely find posts to pique their respective interests wandering through the posts here….

“UFO ‘Cults'”: Seriously? A Public Service Announcement

In various comment threads unwound from postings of M. J. Banias‘ article for Vice, “UFO Conspiracy Theorists Offer ‘Ascension’ From Our Hell World for $333“, I noticed a disturbing trend when it came to the matter of UFO New Religious Movements (NRMs). The only term used to refer to them was “cult”, and the only examples folks seem to have at their finger tips were Heaven’s Gate or the International Raëlian Movement.

As someone who came of age in a Roman Catholic school in the 1970s, “cults” (most notoriously “the Moonies” and sometimes the “Hare Krishna“) “brainwashing“, and “deprogramming” were very much front and centre, especially following the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. Popular thinking seems stalled in this era.

Anyone whose done more than cursory reading on the topic (a good starting point is the locus classicus anthology of scholarly papers, The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds) will quickly understand among UFO NRMs Heaven’s Gate, for example, is an outlier. The most well-known UFO NRMs (the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, or the Raëlians) are benignly amusing if not uninteresting from a sociological perspective. Indeed, among those who study New Religious Movements, the expression ‘cult’ has been culled as vulgarly dismissive.

Interested (i.e. serious) parties are invited to listen to a recent interview with my friend and collaborator, Dr. Susan J. Palmer, “What’s the difference between a religion and a cult?”. Dr. Palmer is the author and editor of eight books on NRMs, including two book-length studies of UFO NRMs, The Nuwaubian Nation : Black Spirituality and State Control and Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion.

Thank you for your attention.

UFOs. Seriously.

In the past weeks, an opinion column and an interview both appeared on-line calling for UFOs to be taken more seriously, a sentiment I surely share, just not in the same way the authors likely intend or their readers understand.

, a Bloomberg opinion columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University, urges his readers to “Take Those UFO Sightings More Seriously”. The UFOs Cowen has in mind specifically are those in “leaked…videos taken by U.S. navy pilots” recently released by the U.S. Department of Defense. Cowen’s column is not so much a proposal for why or how to take UFO reports seriously as much as a reflection on “the contrast between those who see this as an important question and those who think the whole thing will turn out to be an error or some kind of optical illusion.”

For Cowen, those acquaintances of his game to speculate on the matter are of three kinds:  readers of science-fiction, those “used to thinking probabilistically”, and those not put off by ufomaniacs, with their “cultish devotion to the topic.” Cowen’s second and third types are merely rational. As he puts it, that a claim “‘is almost certainly nonsense,’ [is] still a case for further investigation, as long as the word ‘almost’ remains”; by the same token, logically, no topic is invalid on grounds of guilt by association alone.

Cowen’s own interest in UFOs stems from time he spent among Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico populated by the descendants of the Aztec empire, which famously “met its doom” at the hands of the technologically-superior conquistadors, from which Cowen would draw an historical lesson (at least, that “all of a sudden you are not in charge, and that the future will be permanently different from the past, [and] … that there is more to the world than what is right before your eyes”). With this confession, and that, as a young teenager his favorite authors were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, the cat is out of the bag.

On the one hand, most charitably, we might take Cowen to be arguing for no more than intellectual humility, the admission that our knowledge of nature is limited and that what we have yet to discover might well lead to radical change. On the other, his  example of the fateful encounter between Europeans and Turtle Islanders in this context might well be taken to imply his views are skewed (if not skewered) by the very same anthropocentrism that possesses those with a cultish devotion to the topic of UFOs. For the cognoscenti, the comparison between the arrival of Europeans on the shores of Turtle Island and that of no less “technologically-superior” extraterrestrials on earth is a cliché. More seriously, it uncritically (and unimaginatively) projects patterns of human ingenuity, behaviour, and history on extraterrestrial life, as if the tenuously contingent, nearly aleatoric vector of human cultural history (let alone “technology”) were somehow a transcendent, eternal Platonic Form shaping the destiny of all life in the universe. That is, the comparison assumes that technology is somehow natural to intelligent life and that it develops along fairly universal lines, such that one culture can unproblematically be said to be more or less technologically advanced than another. The same kind of thinking is expressed by the Raëlians, whose extraterrestrial Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us.

Even more suggestive is Cowen’s invocation of science fiction. Readers, if not fans, of the genre are amenable to imagining UFOs are instances of advanced technology, terrestrial or otherwise, not only because such projections are the very stuff of much of the genre, but also (and more interestingly) because most speculations about the nature of UFOs are themselves a kind of spontaneous science-fiction, as proponents of the Psychosocial Hypothesis (perhaps most notably Martin Kottmeyer) have long maintained. For those  who pursue this line of thought, science fiction provides the manifest content of UFO sightings and close encounter experiences, which, in turn, provides more material for science fiction. In a word, in this regard, the UFO is hyperreal.

Cowen is not alone in wanting UFOs to be taken seriously nor in standing on the same ideological ground that roots his contention. Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at Ohio State University, already well-known for his co-authored academic paper “Sovereignty and the UFO” and his recent TEDx talk, “Wanted:  A Science of UFOs”, in an interview with Vox voices ideas very much in harmony both with those who call for serious research into UFOs and those with their cultish devotion to the topic.

With regard to those recently-released U.S. Navy videos that prompt Cowen’s thoughts, Wendt’s probabilistic thinking is that odds are “51 to 49 in favor” of the videos’ picturing extraterrestrial craft; indeed, Wendt goes so far as to claim that “the Occam’s razor explanation is ETs.” Nor is Wendt shy about speculating about the visitors’ possible intentions (though it is surely uncertain just how serious to take his words, here): “They could just be intergalactic tourists. Maybe they’re looking for certain minerals. It could just be scientific curiosity.” A number of times in the interview, Wendt proposes that the visitors have been on earth a long time, as “there are medieval woodcuts that seem to show UFOs. There are UFO stories in the Bible, apparently, or at least stories that are interpreted that way.” Given they have been visible throughout human history, the question naturally arises as to why the aliens have neither kept their presence secret nor have made open contact: Wendt guesses “they have had a lot of experience with this in the past with civilizations at our stage.” The interview understandably explores the imaginable consequences of open contact, which, for Wendt, would be “the most important event in human history,” and culturally catastrophic, a scenario that, again, as with Cowen (and Stephen Hawking, who is remarked), is compared to the encounter of Europeans and Turtle Islanders, in Wendt’s case, the meeting of Montezuma and Cortes. Such a meeeting with our extraterrestrial visitors would be so destabilizing, because, for Wendt, “there’s a hubris in the scientific community, a belief that human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet, and it’s very hard to come to grips with the idea that if there are aliens here, they’re obviously much smarter than we are.”

Clearly, Wendt’s speculations are governed by the same set of assumptions about life, intelligence, and technology as Cowen’s and the ufomaniac’s. Wendt seems to take for granted that intelligence is unproblematically measurable and comparable, especially as it is expressed in technological terms (the aliens are “obviously much smarter than we are”); that technology, likewise, is measurable on a universally-applicable, sliding scale (the aliens have encountered “civilizations at our stage”); that even the intentions and values of intelligent, technological species are akin to our own (the aliens are tourists, or prospectors, or scientists). These hardly unproblematic assumptions are all the more ironic given that, for Wendt, the institution of the state is markedly “anthropocentric” and the scientific community is guilty of the hubris of believing “human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet.”

Wendt’s assumptions about technology and culture are strikingly ideological, projecting not only the narcissistic history of one culture on earth (the one that tells the story of the so-called “developed world”) onto that of all imaginable others, but going so far as to imagine prospecting and tourism as no less possibly “natural” to intelligent life. And his assumptions about intelligence are no less blinkered than those of the scientists he criticizes, for it is precisely some of those self-same scientists, whose research into animal and even plant consciousness, cognition, and intelligence, who have shattered the concept and scale of “intelligence” that allows Wendt to so casually utter judgements about human and alien intelligence. Indeed, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its relation to environmental degradation, arguably a more important event in human history then encountering some version of our First World selves (however much more “advanced”) would be the dethroning and decentering of human intelligence, ingenuity, and interests and the advent of a more sane, just, and sustainable biocentric culture and civilization, one capable of recognizing, yes, the intelligence (let alone intrinsic value) of the myriad of “alien”, i.e. nonhuman, forms of life with which we share this planet.

This critique should not be mistaken for a dismissal. Wendt is to be applauded at least for, as he says, having a plan, the project for “a ground-based network of surveillance stations” under the aegis of his nonprofit UFODATA. Indeed, almost since the advent of the modern era of the phenomenon, motivated by both concerns over national security and scientific curiosity, the reality and nature of the UFO has been subject to study with tools and methods both forensic and natural scientific. I would think any projected research along these lines would begin with a review of the available literature to discover just what had been attempted, what had been discovered (if anything), how or why not. In this regard, it strikes me as curious how efforts such as UFODATA never seem to remark these previous attempts, e.g., those of Harvey D. Rutledge’s Project Identification carried out in the early 1970s or the ongoing research into the Hessdalen Lights. In any event, such a “scientific ufology” is likely to remain with us as long as the enigma of the phenomenon and is hardly to be dismissed outright.

Of course, research of the kind Wendt proposes is hardly the only way to take UFOs seriously. The UFO undoubtedly holds a cultural place, one much more amenable to investigation. However, some more recent, humanistic approaches to the UFO have not proven as serious as they could or should be, either, given their authors’ scholarly background or the prestigious academic presses that issued their work. David J. Halperin’s Intimate Alien came out with Stanford University Press this year (2020) and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic appeared with Oxford University Press the year before. Both Halperin and Pasulka are religious studies scholars, Halperin retired from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Pasulka at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Both works (pretty much) bracket the question of the reality and nature of the UFO and their putative pilots, focussing more on the religious significance of the phenomenon and the stories about it. Both works absolutely warrant a more sustained and scrupulous reading than I venture here, but their curious lack of scholarly heft in essential respects can be sketched out briefly along with some speculations as to the editorial and cultural pressures I imagine that are to blame.

Halperin’s Intimate Alien (“The Hidden Story of the UFO”) takes up the countless stories about UFOs explicitly as a mythology, not in the sense of a system of outmoded, unfounded false beliefs, but in the sense of Carl Jung’s “modern myth of things seen in the sky”. UFOs and the reports of and rumours about them spring ultimately from the Collective Unconscious, the wellspring of all dream, myth, and art, and express something profoundly meaningful about the human condition. Indeed, Jung’s analytic psychology, with its ideas of the Collective Unconscious and Archetypes, is the theoretical foundation of Halperin’s book, yet nowhere does Halperin make anything more than the most passing, casual explanation of Jung’s theories or ideas nor a single reflection on let alone defense of their veracity.

American Cosmic, though more far-ranging in both its subject matter and field of scholarly reference, goes awry from the get-go. In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is:  a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin:  “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light. The reason I lay so much emphasis on this single sentence from the book’s preface is because the relation between technology and the sacred, how technology becomes an object revered and adored (if not fetishized) and the consequences of this relation for the significance of the UFO, is the red thread that runs through the argument of the entire book, arguably suturing its disparate chapters together. Thus, in both Intimate Alien and American Cosmic, essential, foundational concepts are presented in passing, as if self-evident, needing no explanation, analysis, reflection, or defense, which is neither serious in a scholarly sense nor ultimately intellectually satisfying.

Of course, it shouldn’t take too much reflection to see that I am demanding too much of these two books, because neither are, in a sense, serious, scholarly works, certainly not in the manner of Jung’s or Heidegger’s. Their style, biographical and conversational in the case of Intimate Alien, narrative and easy-going in that of American Cosmic, mark them as works by academics whose argument and presentation have been debased and polished respectively in equal measure for the sake of broader appeal (read: sales). Especially given that the genre of “UFO books” is a popular, not a specialized, one (in the way that Religious Studies books are), it’s not difficult to imagine the pressures increasingly cash-starved academic presses face (Stanford University Press recently barely avoided being shuttered altogether) to increase revenues, pressures passed on down to editors and their authors. These straits, combined with certain fashions coming to the fore in the 1980s, discernible in the light-hearted styles of literary theorist Terry Eagleton or, closer to home, Jodi Dean in Aliens in America, motivated, at the time, by the sense that academics might and should culture a readership wider than that of their specialized peers, along with a parallel loss of “deep literacy“, combine to shape Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books into what they are.

UFOs, whether as a maddeningly elusive physical phenomenon or a richly-suggestive sociocultural one, call to be taken seriously, more seriously than a for-profit intellectual marketplace in our increasingly semiliterate time allows. Regarded as a cultural phenomenon, as my ideological critiques of Cowen and Wendt suggest and as Pasulka intuits, the UFO is revelatory in its own, weird way, of the gravest problems facing human civilization and the obscured disorientiation at their root, disorentiations and confusions whose names are legion, not to be dispersed without an investment in an ascetic, grave intellectual labour equal to the challenge and even that meagre flicker of insight to be won.

[By curious synchronicity, the day I was finally able to get these thoughts more or less down, Scientific American posted an interview with Leslie Kean, “Should Scientists Take UFOs and Ghosts More Seriously?”. For the interviewer (John Horgan), the only worthwhile concern was whether UFOs are extraterrestrial. “What is the best single piece of evidence that UFOs have an extraterrestrial origin?” he asks. Seriously?]

The Mindbending Singularity of the UFO Anomaly

UFO believers and skeptics are both convinced that they know. Believers (extreme examples include devotees of the Sphere Being Alliance, the ECETI Ranch, and all those breathlessly waiting for Disclosure) know that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships piloted by a wide variety of alien races/species with equally various intentions for humankind; they, I would argue, are not skeptical enough. Skeptics, on the other hand, know that UFO sightings and encounters with their putatively extraterrestrial pilots are merely a mishmash of rumour, misperception, and pathology; they, it seems to me, are (for the most part) neither skeptical enough of their own sometimes strenuous explanations nor curious enough about the cultural, social, and psychological implications of the phenomenon in its multifarious guises even if their dismissals are all well-founded. The phenomenon, as is well-known, also exhibits features that elude both the believers’ beliefs and the skeptics’ debunkings. For my part, the UFO phenomenon remains, therefore, a mystery, whether one appends the adjective Fortean to it or not.

As I’ve ventured on a couple of occasions, the UFO is as much an aesthetic object as a possible object for the physical sciences. By “aesthetic object” I do not mean one that is merely or exclusively “beautiful” (though UFOs themselves and related experiences can possess this quality) but that, following Immanuel Kant’s line of thought, the UFO requires we create a concept for it rather than subsuming it under one ready-to-hand (if we could do that it would hardly be the persistent anomaly it has proven to be). It’s precisely this characteristic I want to touch on here, that the conceptual demands the UFO phenomenon places on our attempts to conceptualize it suggest it is at present a kind of epistemic singularity.

Just as a gravitational singularity (a black hole) suspends the normal laws of spacetime, the UFO warps our thinking about it. The irrationality displayed by both believers and skeptics is a case in point. But even those who have attempted to grapple with the mystery with method, reason, imagination, or speculation find their investigations quickly complicated if not frustrated by the equally wily and protean evasiveness of the phenomenon, aptly characterized with reference to the Trickster of various folklores. Paradoxically (go figger) this denial of understanding and comprehension is at the same time an open invitation to imagine and think in a non-linear, alogical way, “outside the box” of the rules of method, with an impish playfulness of mind equal to that displayed by the phenomenon itself. From this perspective, two, more “out-of-this-world” (how apt) speculations take on a certain appeal.

Since the dawn of the modern era, Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting, analogues between the UFO and more mythic or religious manifestations have been noted. Adamski’s circle identified the flying discs of the time, inspired by their Theosophically-tinged grasp of Hindu and Vendantic lore, as vimanas, the aerial chariots of the gods of ancient India. More recently, similarities between alien abductions and shamanic initiation and practice have been noted. Even more recently, psychonauts for whom dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has been the preferred vehicle for exploring what appear as 3.-Mantis-280x420alternate dimensions have reported encounters with beings markedly similar to entities associated with UFOs and alien abductions. In an attempt to probe this experience more thoroughly, Dr Andrew Gallimore is attempting to develop the means to allow psychonautical explorers to reside in these unusual realms longer than the relatively more transient states of DMT intoxication afforded by smoking it or even drinking ayahuasca, by means of medical technology. Such efforts put the mainstream Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the so-called Secret Space Program in a new light!

No less imaginative is the hypothesis of Trevor James Constable , that UFOs are in fact plasmatic life forms native to earth’s atmosphere. What makes Constable’s theory all the more provocative is how it is couched in Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory and as of 2003 given more mainstream as well as fringe scientific support. Mircea Sanduloviciu and his colleagues at Cuza University in Romania have created plasma phenomena that can grow, replicate, and communicate just like living cells, while Nik Hayes and Leon Southgate have managed to photograph Constable’s orgonotic bio-forms. Just as psychonautical exploration expands our notions of reality, so the investigations of Constable et al. widen our ideas of what might constitute life on (and off) earth.

AFRA09

Such wild research suggests another feature of the phenomenon closer to the heart of the mythopoeic work undertaken here in the Skunkworks:  it inspires equally a rational, scientific and poetic response. That is, just as some ufologists tackle the enigma with forensic and natural scientific methods, its irrational dimension demands a playfulness of mind no less nimble and agile. To paraphrase the idea of Aimé Michel quoted above, the phenomenon puts into question both the laws of our physics and the structure of our societies. In line with Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ argument (in his four-volume Mythologiques) that mythological thinking is no less rigorous or practical than that of our natural sciences, the phenomenon inspires a response from the whole of the human being, as if as a kind of “compensatory mechanism” (Jung) it seeks to balance the deepening perversity of our present technocapitalistic moment and the ecological crises that it engenders. To heal is to make whole, and the spiritual stresses the black (rabbit) hole of the UFO phenomenon places on human understanding might play just that role.

Idle minds are the conspiracy theorist’s workshop…

Regular visitors here will know production has stalled at the Skunkworks. So, after arriving in those repurposed school busses with the blacked-out windows, the staff not working on settling in to the new installation have way too much time on their hands. One result has been their weaving conspiracy theories from their newsfeeds and attendant discussion threads.

The most recent concerns the appearance of COVID-19, the Corona Virus. Of course, they’ve been batting around the official and more paranoid theories, until one’s tinfoil hat lit up in a veritable explosion of sparks. A colleague had remarked he was afraid the virus might dampen participation in the upcoming presidential election in the U.S. come November, at which point the following theory was proposed:

COVID-19 neither arose naturally, arrived from space, or escaped from a Chinese bioweapons lab, but had been engineered by some agent aligned with Trump, let’s say, for the sake of argument, the American military under his administration’s direction. Said weaponized pathogen, engineered to appear imaginably naturally occurring, 1. conveniently disrupts Chinese society, slowing and if not temporarily crippling its economy, China being the single greatest threat to American economic and military hegemony at present, (and inflicts no little damage on Iran, as well) , and 2. arrives on American shores at just the right time to give the regime good reason to declare a state of emergency and institute martial law, delaying the election ad infinitum and inaugurating Trump’s presidency-for-life.

I’ve been told the conversation stopped momentarily, while everyone at the table looked at each other in frightened wonderment as the proposed theory sunk in…

Remember:  you read it here, first.

 

Thomas Bullard reviews M. J. Banias’ The UFO People

Sometimes “the UFO community” reveals that some of its members are just shit-gibbons (which is an insult to gibbons):  point of evidence is the recent hacking of Diane W. Pasulka’s social media accounts and email (if I have the story straight).

Pasulka statement

What is wrong with some people?

But, then, the less socially-challenged among us (admittedly, a relative judgement) are edified by something good that comes out it all. To wit, this review of M. J. Banias’ The UFO People by no less than folklorist Thomas E. Bullard in the no less auspicious Journal for Scientific Exploration. Bullard devotes just over eight pages of cogent appreciation to Banias’ work, one whose concerns are shared here at Skunkworks.

Here’s to less shit-gibbonry and more serious, civil work!

 

The Radical Romanticism of the Anomalist

Regular visitors will doubtless have noticed Skunkworks has been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is due to October’s having been devoted to packing and moving the physical facility and the days since working on unpacking and getting the new digs functional. As the library (sorry, Nick) is presently just piles and piles of books, it hasn’t been possible to maintain the level of erudition I’m uncomfortable without.

Some of the library
Part of the library, and not even the ufological part…

Nevertheless, one chance volume on the top of one those piles provides the impetus for today’s reflection.

In a recent brief back and forth concerning how to take if not explain Deep Prasad’s recently famous experience, Rich Reynolds expressed discontent with understanding it as a variety of religious experience. He writes:

It seems to me that a Shamanic interpretation is the least interesting, not worthy of the discussion we’ve given it here.

It leads us away from a truly imaginative and possibly insightful determination that Deep’s experience invites.

I had remarked Prasad’s experience bore certain resemblances to a shamanic initiation (an insight whose grounds and implications await a functional library here in the Skunkworks…). Reynolds, however, finds my conjecture lacking interest, imagination, and insight, which is curious. Why should a variety of religious experience, archaic, perhaps contemporary, and doubtlessly global and transcultural, and, most importantly, which eludes explanation, be deemed uninteresting?

What’s thought-provoking is how an undoubtedly real anomaly (the nature and significance shamanic initiation and experience) fails to inspire, while far more tenuous possibilities (that Prasad had communicated with extra- or ultraterrestrials or interdimensional intelligences) or downright dismissive psychological explanations (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy or “a waking dream”) are ready grist for the mill.

The German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known as “Novalis” (pictured above)) writes in one famous fragment:

By endowing the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious aspect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic.

The Fortean or anomalist, it seems to me, is somewhat of a Romantic in this regard. The opposite of the debunker or skeptic who would reduce every anomaly to the commonplace, ordinary, or known, the anomalist is equally dissatisfied with phenomena that are in fact already mysterious, dissatisfied with something both provocative and amenable to investigation, needing an extra aura of “the unexplained” to fire the imagination and maintain interest. One need only think of those who quite understandably wonder about the engineering that went into constructing archaic monuments but dismiss explanations that are human, all-too-human, instead, finding it better to invoke “the gods”, extraterrestrial or otherwise.

Aristotle writes in the opening of the Metaphysics that “philosophy begins in wonder.” This wonder at the phenomena of the world incites investigation. It’s just such wonder that, in the best of circumstances, drives the sciences, and it is likewise such wonder that inspires the proto-Romantic poet William Blake to urge us

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

A kind of wonder, it seems, just not enough for whom the world and its mysteries need an added, however artificial and flimsy, glamour.

 

New book from David Halperin–get it now!

Just got word today David Halperin has new book—Intimate Alien: the Hidden Story of the UFO—forthcoming from prestigious Stanford University Press, which describes it as follows:

UFOs are a myth, says David J. Halperin—but myths are real. The power and fascination of the UFO has nothing to do with space travel or life on other planets. It’s about us, our longings and terrors, especially the greatest terror of all: the end of our existence. This is a book about UFOs that goes beyond believing in them or debunking them, to a fresh understanding of what they tell us about ourselves as individuals, as a culture, as a species….

With Oxford University Press putting out D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic earlier this year, could something be afoot in at least cultural ufology?

If you order Intimate Alien before the end of September 2019, you get 30% off, too!

I doubt whatever Tom DeLonge & Co. have up their sleeve is half as interesting…

Anchored in philology: an addendum to “When a sighting report is not”

The latest example of Rich Reynolds’ irrational tenacity sent me to Aubeck’s and Vallée’s Wonders in the Sky. For all its failings, catalogued at length by at least two tenacious critics and admitted by no less than Vallée himself, the book is not without its saving graces.

I was recently moved by being shown John Carey’s study of sky ship tales from medieval Ireland to use his scholarship to make an argument about the interpretive dangers of reading narratives from distant times and cultures. At the time, I went to Wonders in the Sky and was surprised I could find no mention of these sky ships. It turns out Aubeck and Vallée were one step ahead of me in this regard, however.

I was unable to find such stories among the 500 they present in their “Chronology of Wonders”, because they include them in the second section of illustratively questionable tales, “Myths, Legends, and Chariots of the Gods”. The authors base their own analysis (pp. 405-11) on Carey’s, noting both the scant references to the sky ships in the annals and the increasing embellishment of the basic story line over time.

Most impressively (to me) they resolve the mystery of how the most famous (and fabulous) version of the story, wherein the sky ship’s anchor is caught in the church’s door arch, is repeated during the Phantom Airship flap of 1896/7:  according to Aubeck and Vallée, the Boston Post published an article “A Sea Above the Clouds:  Extraordinary Superstition Once Prevalent in England” that recounted two British folktales, one a version of the more famous Irish one. Two weeks later, the story was updated to the present and relocated to Merkel, Texas as reported the Houston Daily Post 28 April 1897, two days after the incident was said to have occurred (p. 409).

A (very) little more digging turns up that the article Aubeck and Vallée refer to also appeared (seemingly for the first time) in the 7 March 1897 edition of Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune and the next day in the Nebraska State Journal. It remains nevertheless no less astounding, however, that so recherché a philological tidbit should make the rounds as a syndicated article of all things in America’s newspapers at the time!

To paraphrase Chaucer:  The life so short, the bookshelf so long to read!

Correspondence from the Art History Department of the Invisible College concerning the Glaser and Coccius Broadsheets

During my recent debate concerning the sixteenth century broadsheets from Nuremberg and Basel made famous by Carl Jung in his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (plates VI and V, respectively), I reached out to an art historian I know for whatever light they could shed on the question. I reproduce our short e-correspondence, below.

I was surprised they were more persuaded that the broadsheets reported on and depicted actual observations than I was. You can read my first essay on the matter and view the broadsheets here, and my second take, here.

 

SKUNKWORKS

I’m in a discussion with another ufophile concerning two 16th broadsheets, first noted by Jung in his book on Flying Saucers.

The first is from Nuremberg 1561 (an account of the story accompanying the illustration can be read, however rough and ready, here.)

The second is from Basel 1566, here.

Illustrations attached [viewable at the link, above].

My interlocutor insists the illustrations are merely and only allegories for the religious tensions of the day. I contend that, however stylized they in fact are, they are 1. Artist’s illustrations of the accompanying texts, which 2. Refer to events on specific dates, not to the general struggles of the day.

I readily grant both broadsheet pages are religiously informed (e.g., the crosses in the Nuremberg picture), but I am skeptical about their being merely allegorical pictures.

What illumination can you bring to the pictorial conventions at work in these pictures:  are they reducible in the way my interlocutor contends, or do they employ stylizations of the day to depict what they texts report?

 

ART HISTORY DEPARTMENT, THE INVISIBLE COLLEGE

Having looked at the illustrations and the accompanying texts, I am of the opinion that they are related to specific events. The texts sound quite precise and have a scientific tone, they don’t sound allegorical. They are news notices so the medium does have an impact on how the message would have been understood at the time. An allegorical text would refer to the Bible or the Old Testament. There are such images pertaining to the religious wars and they depict things like the Tower of Babel, the Ruins of Jericho or Sodom and Gomorrah. They show armies battling it out and good being triumphant or evil being punished. Many artists did biblical series using thinly veiled metaphors that their public would have understood as religious or political commentary of the events of the day. Your debate is complicated by the fact that there are two camps, the iconoclasts and the iconophiles.

Look at the works of Michelangelo, Titian, Dürer, Cranach. They all had to deal with the impact of these wars and the changes imposed on them by their Churches. The Catholics depended on the Church’s patronage to survive. The Church expected them to use the Bible as a point of departure for their work and their work was closely scrutinized during its production. If they strayed, they paid a heavy price. Catholic artists fared better than the Protestant artists who lost their patronage altogether. In addition, the Protestants had their works destroyed in the riots.

In the Coccius illustration, the onlookers seem surprised or in awe but not cowering in terror. The Nuremberg one actually has an explosion but I am not seeing the usual binary confrontation between two camps, which is typical–good confronting evil.

The artists of the time had to answer to their respective Churches. Coccius and Glaser both seem to have had much more leeway than other artists of their time. In Switzerland, where Coccius worked, there were Catholics and Protestants from one canton to the next. The illustration doesn’t seem to follow the edicts of the Catholic Church but it would not have pleased the other side either. Glaser was on the fence as well. From what I can tell, he lived in Catholic Bavaria but surrounded by Lutherans. I believe that Illustrations of specific non-religious events would not have been questioned in the same way as artworks with a religious theme.

Paolo Veronese had to go before the Inquisition because of heresy for irreverently painting “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities” in a painting that could have initially been about the Last Supper. I am including Veronese’s responses to the Inquisition excerpted from H.W. Janson’s History of Art on Paolo Veronese’s “The Feast in the House of Levi” (1573, oil on canvas) [the featured image for this post]. It contains the transcript of the interrogation of the Inquisition and is quite entertaining. This is what the art of the time looked like. He didn’t redo the painting as he was directed to by the Inquisition, he just changed the title. Ah those weaselly artists! To conclude, I believe the two illustrations you sent me are just that, illustrations of phenomena. If the Churches weren’t happy, the artists faced serious repercussions, like the Inquisition and/or the destruction of the works themselves, that is not nothing.

Have a look at Glaser’s other works, here [and, better, here].

 

SKUNKWORKS

Merci for your specialized comments. One small wrinkle in the matter came to light after I wrote you. The Reformation and Counter Reformation inspired a tremendous interest in anomalies, wonders, miracles, and prodigies. The two broadsheets were printed to meet this demand. Glaser (responsible for the Nuremberg one) printed a number along these lines (some dozen are in the holdings of the Zurich State Library, where Jung found these two examples and reproduced them in his book on ufos in the ‘50s).

You can see my two takes on the matter (when you have time and inclination)[at the first two links, above]:

 

ART HISTORY DEPARTMENT, THE INVISIBLE COLLEGE

Yes, I am aware of the miracles and wonders illustrated at the time. These two cases however are specific events, which were chronicled in the news of the time. I am not saying that they are exact illustrations, nothing was that straightforward, but I believe they were likely meteorological events, possibly a combination of phenomena such as waterspouts, hail, firestorms and yes, a blood moon. There is the question of these artists place within the hierarchy, They had more freedom because they were not uppermost in the minds of the religious regulatory bodies of the time. These institutions were put in place to force artists (and others) into submission. As for fake news, yes this is possible but both of these illustrators tend to be quite literal in their approach and are very detailed when it comes to illustrating fortifications and ramparts or botanical curiosities. In my opinion, Jung had his own perspective on these from the onset. And, yes, certainly we project our own knowledge base, prejudices and lacunae onto these images.

We witness a stylistic shift in artists working for the Catholic Church during the second part of the 16th century, with the rise of Mannerism.  During this time, the Church is actually fighting wars and has a fleet of ships. It is fighting the spread of Islam but also protecting its trade routes and economic concerns. in the last quarter of the century, Italian artists suffer major losses due to fires that were deliberately set by their enemies (both Bellinis, Carpaccio and several artists whose works are part of the collections held by the more progressive Doge). This is not a comfortable or safe time to live in. Add to that the decimation of a third of the population after an epidemic of the plague in 1576. Titian, who had managed to live to an advanced age, died that year. All that to say there were plenty of reasons to look for wonders in the sky.

I read the texts corresponding to the links, very interesting insights on the matter. Not a subject I know much about. It was fun.

 

 

Our sky is their sea

Last week, I wrote about Celtic Studies scholar John Cary’s hard core study of the varied tales of sky ships in medieval Ireland and its consequences for taking stories of this kind as ancient versions of modern-day UFO sighting reports. Cary points out the motif that equates sea and sky, seabottom and land is prevalent, not only in world, but Irish, literature as well, from the ancient poems about the hero Bran to one by Seamus Heaney. I added that the comparison of clouds to sea foam is equally ancient, and that that familiar childhood revery helps make the point clear to anyone who remembers sharing it.

I noted, but didn’t publicize, at the time, I had spontaneously hit on the same pattern of imagery in my first trade edition Grand Gnostic Central in the collection’s titular poem. Nor had I read Heaney’s poem until many years after composing the one that follows or even taken up my present mytho-ufological concerns at the time. The prose poem records a very real perception of Montreal, imaginably possibly familiar to anyone who has wandered its streets on any one of its clear, semi-tropical, humid summer nights.

 

from “Grand Gnostic Central”

The metropolis is unexceptional except for its foundation sunk profoundly deep into the bedrock of the ocean floor.  A hemisphere of breathable air is maintained by a permeable membrane admitting needed gases and releasing excess into the seawater.  Lights, that on the surface are aircraft, here trace supertankers.  A traffic of smaller craft swirls into constellations nightly.  The potentially catastrophic difference between air and sea pressure is corrected by three beams of light rotating atop the city’s highest edifice.

 

[Photo by Ed Hawco (Blork)]

“Signs on the Heaven” and “strange shapes in the sky”: Giving the Devil his due

As I wrote concerning stories of ships in the skies in medieval Ireland, “Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter.” The reasons for such stories and the ways they were communicated are more complicated than would appear offhand.

It’s such complexities that underwrite the difference of opinion between me and Rich Reynolds concerning just what to make of two broadsheets from the sixteenth century, one from Nuremberg (1561), the other from Basel (1566). I maintain they are what they purport to be, stories and artists’ impressions of aerial prodigies witnessed on specific dates and times of the day, Reynolds, that they “are ‘editorial rabble-rousing’ by the newspapers and ‘cartoonists’ (the guys who provided the drawings) about the ongoing societal consternations of Luther’s Reformation and the Catholic Church’s Counter-reformation.” My case, with links to our disputations, can be found here.

Exactly what was witnessed in 1561 and 1566 is a question that persists from those years to our own. My own stance concurs with the writer and illustrator of the Nuremberg broadsheet, Hans Glazer:  “God alone knows.” Reynolds seems to be of the opinion that, in fact, nothing was seen, but he nowhere provides a explicit interpretation of the broadsheets themselves that would make clear just how he understands them, aside from their being “editorial rabble-rousing.” So, in the interests of intellectual balance, I want to attempt to argue here that the question as to whether the broadsheets refer to actually witnessed phenomena at all is indeterminate.

I must still disagree with Reynolds’ understanding. Pegging the broadsheets as “editorial rabble rousing” and their accompanying illustrations as “cartoons” is just too vague and ahistorical to do justice to the concrete facts of the print media of the time. The documents in question are best understood as examples of a popular genre of the day, that concerning prodigies and wonders. As Jerome Clark helpfully informs us:  “Rediscovery of the prodigy book of Osequens in 1508 set off a flood of similar works. The most comprehensive was the Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon of Conrad Lycosthenes, which appeared in 1557 at Basel” (48) [my emphasis]. But the appetite for such materials is not accidental.

Reynolds’ whole case is motivated by the historical context, the religious strife that raged through Europe with the Reformation (which begins in 1517) and Counter-Reformation (beginning with the Council of Trent, 1545-1563) culminating in the nightmarish carnage of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). And, indeed, Glaser himself interprets what his text recounts and picture illustrates in religious terms, as “signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance”. The heightened religious fervour of the time, like at the turn of the millennium five centuries earlier, inspired an acutely heightened interest in supernatural signs and wonders. As Clark tells us, “Leading religious figures such as Martin Luther reaffirmed that signs must precede the end of the world, and Puritan belief fostered awareness of the supernatural  by emphasis on a daily struggle between God and Satan in the worldly arena” (48). The historical context is analogous to that no less anxious one following the Second World War that, as Jung would have it, duly witnessed its own signs and wonders “seen in the sky”, flying saucers.

On the one hand, therefore, broadsheets, such as those from Nuremberg and Basel (both Protestant cities) could imaginably serve a propagandistic function. Disseminating accounts of “signs on the heaven” and “strange shapes in the sky” would affirm the populace’s belief in the momentousness of the times and the truth of their beliefs, as Glaser’s own gloss suggests. These reports, moreover, need not be true, but only seem to be true, bolstered by reference to specific times and places and  witnesses and accompanied by artists’ impressions. The broadsheets, then, might be thought of as their days’ “fake news”.

On the other hand, however, the broadsheets do refer to specific locations, dates and times of day, which makes them easy enough for the skeptical to verify. Glaser’s broadsheet was printed a month after the events it claims to report; I have been unable to ascertain how long after the events of 27-28 July and 7 August the Basel pamphlet was printed. This is to say that the broadsheets could just as well be sincere reports of anomalous atmospheric phenomena, or not-so-anomalous phenomena (e.g., parhelia, a “blood moon”, etc.) interpreted through the eyes of the spirit of the day. In the final analysis, the question of “the truth” of these broadsheets turns on the question of just what status we grant the genre of print media of which they are an example.

So, either religious enthusiasm inspires visions of signs in the sky (how, exactly, is an interesting question…), which are duly reported by the broadsheets, which confirms and feeds this ferment, or the spiritual excitement sets up an expectation and desire for such wonders, which the broadsheets meet and maintain. In either case, the significance of these documents can be more or less ascertained only through a scrupulous attention to their own features and whatever can be discovered about their own communicative conventions in the context of their society and its concerns. Whether they are factual or fake, “God alone knows.” Nevertheless, and this is the most important point, however “obvious” their meaning might otherwise appear is a symptom of the invisibility of our own prejudices and ignorance.

 

“There is nothing outside of the context”

Hot on the heels of my post on the air ships of medieval Ireland, Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures offered some, well, conjectures of his own concerning two sixteenth century broadsheets introduced to ufological consciousness by Carl Jung in his famous book on Flying Saucers.

The first is from Nuremberg in 1561 by Hans Glaser:

Himmelserscheinung_über_Nürnberg_vom_14._April_1561

The second is from Basel, 1566, by Samuel Coccius.

In-1566

Reynolds and I agree on dismissing out of hand the all-too-common Ancient Astronaut / Alien theoretical interpretation that sees these as premodern UFO sighting reports. Reynolds, however, goes a step farther, somewhat along the lines I pursue with regard to the medieval Irish airship tales, positing that these broadsheets’ illustrations are, in his words, “editorial cartoons” concerning the religious strife that was dividing post-Reformation Europe at the time. Interested readers can follow our dispute on this matter at the link to UFO Conjectures, above.

I maintain, maybe surprisingly, that the broadsheets are reports of real, if mysterious, occurrences. I base that claim on two main features of the broadsheets. First, both illustrations relate to the text they accompany, stories of anomalous aerial phenomena. These stories are, furthermore, specific as to date and time of day, which they wouldn’t be were they satirical allegories of current affairs. (They would, moreover, likelier be in verse, as was the convention of the time).

Reynolds takes exception, especially with regard to the Nuremberg broadsheet (the first of those reproduced, above), pointing to the smoke billowing in the lower right hand corner (which he sees as “the wrath of God, afflicting either Luther’s heresy or the Church’s vivid rebuttal”) and the prominent black spearhead that points to the left over the city (“A spear? Or some kind of Germanic weather icon…?”).

Reynolds is mistaken on two counts, I argue. First, the text that accompanies the picture that illustrates it refers to “globes, which were first in the sun” and that

flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour. And when the conflict in and again out of the sun was most intense, they became fatigued to such an extent that they all, as said above, fell from the sun down upon the earth ‘as if they all burned’ and they then wasted away on the earth with immense smoke. [my emphasis]

The text continues:  “After all this there was something like a black spear, very long and thick, sighted; the shaft pointed to the east, the point pointed west” [my emphasis]. So, it isn’t difficult to relate what the text refers to and what the illustration depicts. More seriously, Reynolds resists the highly stylized artistic conventions of the illustration, ignoring, for example, a striking evidence for this in the sun’s having a face, let alone how the picture neglects perspective.

So, the context of the illustration (the details of its accompanying text) and the artistic conventions of the day both contradict Reynolds’ attempt to write off the picture (he never gets around to the text) as allegorical treatments of the times and support the contention that they are illustrated reports of actual events.

But Reynolds is right when the historical context of religious strife moves him to see things the way does. Hans Glaser himself offers the following gloss:

Although we have seen, shortly one after another, many kinds of signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance, we still are, unfortunately, so ungrateful that we despise such high signs and miracles of God. Or we speak of them with ridicule and discard them to the wind, in order that God may send us a frightening punishment on account of our ungratefulness. After all, the God-fearing will by no means discard these signs, but will take it to heart as a warning of their merciful Father in heaven, will mend their lives and faithfully beg God, that He may avert His wrath, including the well-deserved punishment, on us, so that we may temporarily here and perpetually there, live as his children. For it, may God grant us his help, Amen.

Clearly, Glaser understands whatever in fact is described in the text as signs from heaven, and he does so precisely because of the concrete historical situation that determines his writing and illustrating the broadsheet.

Not only does Reynolds abstract the illustration from the immediate context of its accompanying text, however, but he (mis)understands the illustration, viewing it through conventions of visual representation foreign to Glaser’s time and place. He’s right to find inspiration for his interpretation in the historical situation, but neglects another dimension of that context.

Jerome Clark in The UFO Book:  Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial (1998) in the entry for “Anomalous Aerial Phenomena Before 1800” (44-58) remarks the tremendous appetite for books of prodigies and wonders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the following telling tidbit: “Rediscovery of the prodigy book of Osequens in 1508 set off a flood of similar works. The most comprehensive was the Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon of Conrad Lycosthenes, which appeared in 1557 at Basel” (48) [my emphasis]. The broadsheets then are most likely best taken to be examples of this genre, catering to the public appetite for news of wonders.

What’s important here is not Reynolds’ and my dispute, but the kind of thinking at work in understanding historically distant documents. Ironically, though we both eschew the Ancient Alien misunderstanding of these broadsheets, Reynolds’ own take  is led astray by the same kinds of errors:  abstracting the illustration from its immediate context and viewing it apart from the artistic conventions and discoverable material cultural interests of the time.

What then is reported and depicted by these broadsheets? Glaser, perhaps, gives the best answer:  “God alone knows.”

 

Addendum:  Reynold’s replies in his own inimitable way here.

 

 

When a sighting report is not

Visitors to tha Skunkworks will know how little patience I have for those (whose name is legion) who insist on taking premodern tales or artwork to be the equivalent of modern-day UFO sighting reports. I’ve taken Vallée to task for conflating alien abduction reports with fairy tales and Velikovsky, Jaynes, and Ancient Astronaut theorists (not to mention even scholar D. W. Pasulka, who should know better) for their no less ahistorical errors. My point has always been that the way we communicate today differs from the ways of other times and places (linguists would refer to differing “codes”), and, so, it’s just ignorant to read texts or interpret art universally according to how we write and represent things here and now. Friend and Irish Studies scholar Antoine Malette has provided me with an excellent case in point.

Celtic Studies scholar John Cary (presently at University College Cork) presented a paper in 1992 titled “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel” (interested readers without access to JSTOR can sign up for a free membership to read it, here). In his study, Cary scrutinizes variations of a story familiar to readers of Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia (144). In Cary’s version:

There happened something once in the borough called Cloena [=Cionmacnoise], which will also seem marvellous. In this town there is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Kiranus [=Ciarán]. One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, it befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship; for a rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got stuck in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marveled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When he came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In the church where the anchor was caught, there is a bishop’s throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon, as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church since then as a testimony to this event.

Curiously, Vallée (and Donald B. Hanlon from whom he cites the story (and Harold T. Wilkins, Hanlon’s ultimate source)) remarks the tale’s variations from eighth century Ireland to Merkel, Texas in April, 1897 and (along with Hanlon) the provocative if no less problematic analogues between the medieval and modern versions but neglects to unfold the implications of this variation, unlike the scholar Cary.

All in all, Cary examines no fewer than six versions of the story, including the newspaper report from 1897. He summarizes their development as follows:

(a) In the mid-eighth century, a notice that ships had been seen in the air was included in the annals. The apparition was subsequently localized at the assembly of Tailtiu, and said to have been witnessed by the then reigning king of Tara.

(b) By the late eleventh century the story had been transferred to the reign of the tenth-century king Congalach Cnogba, and embellished with the detail of the lost and recovered fishing-spear [thrown from the ship]; there was now only one air ship,

(c) By the end of the twelfth century the story was shifted to the monastic milieu of Clonmacnoise, and an anchor took the place of the fishing-spear.

So, the version Vallée and Hanlon compare to the 1897 newspaper story is already so embellished it can’t be seriously considered anything other than a fanciful (i.e. fictional) tale of the marvelous (a medieval genre with its own features and purposes). But I’m not interested in the tiresome exercise of merely debunking Vallée et al. The philology of this tale’s development is more complex and interesting in its implications.

Having surveyed the tale’s variations, Cary conjectures about how it might have arrived at its final, thirteenth century version. The sky ship’s anchor getting caught echoes a motif from around the world and from at least two extant Irish texts, the saga Tochmarc Emere and an extended gloss on the hymn “Ni car Brigit buadach bith“. The tale reaches its fullest elaboration with the Clonmacnoise version likely because, as Carey writes, “Clonmacnoise in the later Middle Irish period seems to have been greedy for marvels: quite a number of little tales, drawn in all likelihood from many disparate sources, associate the monastery with fantastic occurrences of all kinds.” Therefore, Cary concludes, “it seems likeliest that it was in the heady atmosphere of Clonmacnoise mirabilia-collecting” that previous versions and other material “were fused into a single tale.”

The very scheme of the story (aerial ships) and other marvelous elements woven into it by the monks of Clonmacnoise are part of a larger tapestry in Irish and world literature. Cary cites the example of “the famous encounter between the mortal Bran in his ship and the divine Manannán in his chariot, and the [ancient, pagan] poem in which the god declares that what is sea to one is land to the other”. Cary proposes that

such flourishes of paradox and surreality subordinate our habitual frame of reference to an alien [!] and unreckonable scheme which lies beyond it. The stories, in [Proinsias] Mac Cana’s words, explore “the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, between this and the other world, together with the ambiguities and relativities of time and space which were implicit in their interaction.”

Cary’s and Mac Cana’s point here is all the more persuasive when one reflects that the clouds’ being compared to the foam of the sea is ancient, and the revery that inspires it is likely one many of us will remember from our childhood.

However much the story of sky ships is caught up inextricably in daydream, poetic inspiration, and embellished retellings, the matter is still more complex. As all authors here—Cary, Vallée, and Hanlon—admit, the problem of how the modern, newspaper story follows so closely upon the thirteenth century version cited above is “a recalcitrant one.” Moreover, Cary, being the sincere scholar he is, admits up front that

the date, the range of attestation, and the fact that the item [the appearance of aerial vessels] was first recorded in Latin all suggest that we have here to do with a contemporary notice of an anomalous occurrence [my emphasis]. We will of course never know what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s, or how many retellings and mutations separated the first testimony from its distillation in the annals.

In the case of the newspaper story from the Houston Daily Post, the story either records a real event, copies the tale from the thirteenth century Norse text Konungs Skuggsj, or uncannily draws from the same sources of inspiration that coalesced in that version; each of these possibilities equally strain credulity. More to the point, we’re still left with the mystery Cary notes, “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s.”

Those inclined to believe the Psychosocial Hypothesis will maintain that even those earliest, lost passages from the annals record nothing more than rumours, themselves merely stories like that of Bran and the god Mannanán, inspired by the same imaginative schema as the Irish poem. But this response, ironically, commits the same error as taking all stories to be equivalent to witness reports, conflating the genre of the annal or chronicle with that of mirabilia, forgetting that Herodotus called his writings “histories” motivated by the meaning of the ancient Greek verb at the root of our word ‘history’, meaning to inquire, explore, or, as the poet Charles Olson so forcefully put it, to see for oneself. This is to say, no less ironically (or dialectically) that Herodotus’ histories and medieval annals and chronicles are closer in spirit and linguistic code to modern day witness or newspaper reports than the marvelous tales worked up the monks of Clonmacnoise. And a sufficiently persuasive account for how the 1897 version of the story came to be written is still wanting.

Thus, a further irony leads us to a notion central to Ancient Astronaut theorizing, that the body of literature under scrutiny here, like all those myths such theorists point to, is the pearl formed by the oyster of the Unconscious or Creative Imagination around the hard grain of truth of “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead”. But this proposal doesn’t get us very far either, for just what the medieval annals record, in this case, at least, is lost, and, ironically (…), the modern-day version is, in Hanlon’s words, all the more “strange and, in fact, downright suspicious” precisely because of its mirroring the thirteenth century, demonstrably fabulous version.

What should remain beyond a reasonable doubt is the need for and value of the application of intelligent, sensitive specialized erudition in such matters, an application neglected by all the ufological authors in question. Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter. Indeed, similar scrutiny can be applied even to the hermeneutics, productive and receptive, of modern-day witness reports, as if their being contemporary makes them any more immediately comprehensible. By a further turn of the screw of irony, such considered and well-informed analyses and explanations render the topic all the more mysterious, leaving as well the hard kernel of the mystery of just what was seen along with the strangeness of its apparent transhistorical consistency as further grist for the mill of reflection, investigation, and speculation.

No Singularity but Technological Terminus?

Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.

In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.

More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).

The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies:  on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists:  like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.

At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?

This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).

What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.

The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.

 

The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

If William Murphy over at The Anomalist found my post on Robbie Graham’s take on the hyperreality of the UFO “brainy”, I can only shake my head over what he or the like-minded will make of this one…

A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.

Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.

The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.

The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that

…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….

I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.

Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.

 

Phantom Airships, after the fact

Recently, a commenter at UFO Conjectures felt the need to share with me a link concerning mystery aircraft, from 1865-1946. I was a little taken aback, as I’ve been well-apprised of this history since beginning my work on Orthoteny in the early 1990s.

The 1994 chapbook On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery cuts about the same swath, focusing on the Phantom Airships of 1896/7, then jumping ahead to the years just before the Great War, ending with the first bombing of London by Zeppelins and the story of Hill 60, before punctuating the section with the first modern sighting, Kenneth Arnold’s, in 1947.

I therefore share today the final three poems from the Phantom Airship sequence proper.

 

1913

 

The luminous object witnessed early last evening

The War Office has declared a spy-craft

 

Tonight a piercing light

                lit up every corner

                                swept up to the hills

Bright lights flew over at thirty miles an hour

                huffing like a faint train

                                the squeal of gears a clank of flaps

 

Rising last evening

                all of magnitudes greater

                                than Venus

Before daybreak

                unidentifiable lights

                                crossed the Channel

Seen overhead

                sixty miles further

                                every hour after

All afternoon

                they cruised west in threes

                                streets crowded to see

With sunset

                one’s lamp played down

                                gone in a flash

From the east

                three came

                                to hover an hour

Silhouetted

                in their own

                                dazzling glare

 

 

Zeppelin

 

The tram stops

Blackout

A distant drone

 

The audience rises

To sing

“God Save the King”

 

One incendiary

Crashed through the ceiling

Went off in the hall

 

They were in bed and old

Knelt by the bed

And held each other

 

Another fell between the roofs

Onto the narrow lane just in front of them

But bounced off before it burst

 

The side of one house

And the Salvation Army Barracks windows

Blown out

 

A boarding house burned down

The Butcher’s shutters rattled

Neighbours in sheets on the street

 

Three of them lit up against the sky

Incendiaries fireballs falling

Searchlights and the city burning making a twilight

 

 

Hill Sixty

 

Dawn broke clear over Sulva Bay

Only six oval silvery clouds loafed

Undisturbed by the breeze

 

At sixty degrees

To us twenty-four

Six hundred feet away

 

Over the Hill a gunmetal cloud

Three hundred feet high and wide nine hundred long

Not nineteen chains from the trenches

 

The First

Fourth Norfolk

Ordered to reinforce the Hill

 

Were lost to sight as they marched

Into the cloud

For almost an hour

 

It rose then

Off with the others

North

 

No trace

Or record of them

Every found

More from Orthoteny (w.i.p.): Magonian Latitudes

Last week, I shared one section from a long poem, “Magonian Latitudes” (from my second trade edition, Ladonian Magnitudes), that rimes with another section from my treatment of the Phantom Airship Mystery of 1896/7.

Here, I share the entirety of the poetic sequence, an attempt to wind together the notion of the myth-as-myth and allusions to ancient (and medieval) aliens. It has six sections, the beginning of each indicated by the bolded, upper-case first letter of the section’s first line.

Poetically, this sketch for a part of Orthoteny (my work-in-progress dealing with the myth of things seen in the sky in its totality as explored here at Skunkworks) draws on a catholic sampling of the poetics of international, Twentieth-century poetry. It ain’t no doggerel!

Magonian Latitudes

…there is a certain region, which they call Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds…

 

A change of dimension

            not just locale

Like lungs for gills

            or water to air

 

Horses, bison, mammoth, ibex,

            numberless others unheard of

Rendered on cave-walls

            palimpsest thick

Yet on the ceiling alone

            in threes and fours

Flying Saucers hover

            over their occupants

 

The Cabalist Zedechias

            in Pepin’s reign

Sought to convince the world

            Daimonas Sadaim

Neither angelic nor human in kind

            inhabit the Elements

Required the Sylphs show themselves

            in the Air for everyone

Which they did sumptuously

            in the Air in human form

In battle array marching in good order

            halting under arms or magnificent tents

Or the full sails of ships

            riding clouds

 

When winds rose and blew

            black clouds overhead

The peasants ran to the fields

            to lift tall poles

To stay the ships

            from carrying off

What rain or hail

            culled from the crops

Called up by a tempestaire

            for a tithe

Which practice persisted despite

            the Capitularies of Charlemagne

 

The Sylphs saw alarm

            from peasant to crown

Determined to dissipate their terror

            by carrying off men

To show them their women

            and republic

Then set them down

            again on earth

Those who saw these as they descended

            came from every direction

Carried away by the frenzy

            hurried off to torture

Over all the lands countless tested

            by fire or water

 

A marvel in Cloera County

            interrupted Sunday Mass

It befell an anchor on a rope

            caught in Saint Kinarus’ door-arch

Where the line ended in clouds

            the congregation saw some kind of ship

One crewman dove and swam down

            as if to free the flukes from the keystone

But they seized and would hold him

            but that the Bishop

On grounds terrestrial air

            may well drown one celestial

Forbade it

            and freed

Quick as limbs can swim he rose

            to hands on ropes and ladders

The anchor rang and cut

            the line coiled down about them

 

The cave is a long way in from the mouth open to the sky

Generations there stare straight ahead on haunches

Higher up behind a fire burns

A wall before those hurrying past between

Both ways up and down the track there

Their burdens their shadows

 

One over her share

            the water over the earth

The other in the firmament

            the water over the earth

The air a mirror

Whose face is an ocean

            waves electro-magnetic

There they stare dreaming

A quiet blue eye flickers

RE: Robbie Graham on UFOs and Hyperreality: An Addendum and Excursis

I tend to being caustically critical of folks who don’t do their homework, and, as is only just, I have fallen prey to a failing I loathe.

Thanks to no little impetus from M. J. Banias, I essayed some thoughts on UFOs and hyperreality, developing a fourfold distinction between the real, the Real, the hyperreal, and the hyporeal. I noticed after publishing these reflections, one reader of Skunkworks had followed a hyperlink in a previous posting of mine to an article on Mysterious Universe by Robbie Graham, “UFOs: Fact, Fantasy, and Hyperreality”, a version of the conclusion to his 2015 book Silver Screen Saucers. I therefore address here Graham’s treatment of this topic, in the spirit of intellectual honesty and rigor, and to give credit where credit is due.

First, I attempt to reconstruct his views on UFOs, mass media (particularly cinema or the televisual), and the hyperreal as coherently and persuasively as I can….

Graham derives a version of the hyperreal via a genealogy that begins with Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which then descends by way of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle to arrive at Jean Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacrum, the locus classicus of the concept of the hyperreal (though, strictly, Baudrillard first essays the idea in his earlier book, Symbolic Exchange and Death). Graham’s own understanding is expressed very hastily; he synthesizes Benjamin, Debord, and the Wikipedia entry on ‘Hyperreality’ (hardly the most trustworthy authority), in a single sentence:

Technologies of reproduction (mechanical and digital) have ushered in the age of the hyperreal, an age where simulations of reality threaten to dissolve the boundaries between “fact” and “fantasy,” between “true” and “false,” “real” and “imaginary.”

This “age of the hyperreal” emerges from the conditions of the society of the spectacle, which Graham characterizes as one wherein

…“the real world changes into simple images… and the simple images become real.”  In our spectacular society [sic], said Debord, “the image matters more than the object, in fact, much more so than mere objective truth.” The image replaces the truth – it is truth, it is reality.

Such hyperbolically paradoxical claims—that reality becomes image; images, real; that they replace truth and reality; that the distinctions between fact and fantasy, true and false, and real and imaginary threaten to collapse—call for some explanation, let alone support, which I imagine Graham sees himself as providing in the remainder of his text, which sets out his main contention that

cinematic simulations of UFOlogical history have all but consumed the history itself through the process of replication, just as humans were consumed and replicated as pod people in genre classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

This “process of replication” and replacement depends upon the power of cinema and how the medium takes up and presents “real” ufological material. For Graham, UFOs “are ‘real,’ … they exist independently of cinema, and of pop-culture”; UFO phenomena precede their pop cultural representation, and, even in the absence of this representation “people would continue to report UFOs.” Cinematic fictions are therefore based on ufological facts (“art imitates life”); however, because of the artistic license taken with these facts and the power, aesthetic and social, of the medium, the public perception of the “real” phenomenon is distorted if not replaced by its fictional versions.

Graham’s insight turns on the power he grants the cinematic medium:

Movies masquerade as the final word on a given topic. No matter what the subject, and regardless of how much that subject has already been written about and debated, once it is committed to film—once it has received the full Hollywood treatment—it is embedded firmly and forever into the popular consciousness. Imprinted on our psyche. Plunged into the deep wells of memory and imagination.

This power is troubling, since cinema “imprints” on its audience not the truth of reality but “at best, reflections of …reality, snapshots of it, simulations of it, skewed and distorted through the ideological framework of those who have made them.”

Based on these premises, Graham analyzes the general process of hyperrealization into three phases. First, authentic, true, real ufological material is simulated in some popular medium (film, television, or “video games, comic books, etc.”).  Second, the audience receives this simulation and is consequently subject to the workings of popular media by which the source material, “ufological reality” “is masked and perverted”. Finally, “reality and simulation are experienced as without difference, or rather, the image has come to mean more … than any underlying reality.”

He summarizes the process thusly:

Essentially, then, the hyperreality of the UFO phenomenon has arisen primarily through processes of mass media simulation. The blurring of true and false, real and imaginary, through that most magical of mediums (cinema), and within the context of that most fantastical of genres (science fiction), engenders our acceptance of the UFO as just that: a fictional media construct with little or no grounding in our lived historical reality. And yet, thanks to their permanent residency in the popular imagination, UFOs are no less real to us as a result.

To paraphrase:  I take Graham to mean that the mass media exploitation of ufological material—its re-presentation, reproduction, and proliferation—overwhelms the preexisting, real-world sightings and encounters, drowning out and replacing that UFO reality in the public imagination. Because the ufological thereby becomes in the first instance a matter of fantasy and more-or-less light entertainment, whatever gravity the real-world phenomenon might possess is coloured by its media representation in advance, prejudicing its reception. In this way, the representation takes precedence over the represented.

I find Graham’s basic point, as paraphrased above, persuasive; however, there are some nits to pick and more major implications to unfold. A slight parody of Marshall McLuhan’s famous pairing will organize our critique according the media and their messages.

The aesthetic and social power of cinema in particular and mass media in general are central to Graham’s views. On the one hand, he’s surely correct to stress the power of the medium, the way the audience, especially when films were generally viewed on a big screen, can lose itself in the film, like a dream, as director David Lynch so eloquently remarks, a potential that also inspires directors as different as Quentin Tarantino and Guy Madden, following the example of Benjamin’s contemporary, Bertolt Brecht, to adopt techniques precisely to break that trance. But is it true that movies pretend to give “the final word on a given topic,” that once a subject “is committed to film it is embedded firmly and forever into the popular consciousness”? Here, I think Graham overstates his case to drive home the way cinematic representations can take on a life, truth and reality of their own, e.g., the image of the Wild West (ironically returned to an explicitly fictional status by that sleeper of recent years, Gore Verbinksi’s The Lone Ranger). More importantly, however, is the way that paradoxical active passivity of the audience in its suspension of disbelief is passed over in silence:  like the subject of hypnosis, the audience must want to enter the cinematic or other world presented by the medium where it then becomes subject to its influence; the effects of media on their audiences are less one-way than Graham’s characterizations would admit.

Moreover, Graham places too much importance on the cinematic or televisual media. Surely, when Kenneth Arnold made his historic sighting report, print media (where it first appeared) still held its own against Hollywood. Within two decades the small screen of the television was giving the big screen a run for its money. Within a generation, the internet and digital media began their revolutionary drive to dominance, and now, twenty or so years later, the smart phone is the the premiere medium. Admittedly, the proliferation of such essentially televisual media strengthen Graham’s case for the insidious influence of popular culture. aliens-examining-an-abducted-female-mary-evans-picture-libraryHowever, at the same time, he underestimates or discounts the popular culture presence of UFO and alien imagery preceding Arnold’s monumental sighting, as scholars and skeptics as diverse as David Halperin and Martin S. Kottmeyer would be glad to point out with gusto. In a telling, figurative slip, Graham himself seems to grasp that other media decentre cinema, when he writes that cinema provides only “snapshots” of reality; the older, static medium of photography intrudes synecdochally into the characterization of its newer, dynamic competitor if not replacement, both as its forerunner and essential element (pre-digital “film” being a sequence of still shots…).

Here, the artefactual record is the first to rub against his assertion that the UFO phenomenon precedes and transcends its popular cultural representations. More seriously, his three-phase process is curiously atemporal and abstract. The UFO witness is no blank slate, but oriented within and informed by culture, just as Hollywood is guided not only by existing artistic conventions and material conditions (funding, market, audience expectations, etc.) but by the canon of existing UFO/alien depictions, which themselves become material to be reproduced or transcended (by new material or radically different depictions and development). In other words, there is no immaculate UFO experience not already influenced by popular culture, just as there is no pure cinematic medium untouched by tradition or the present that takes up this experience as material. The experience and its mass cultural representations are always already mutually implicated.

Most importantly, there is marked tension between the claims that “reality and simulation are experienced as without difference” and that the “real” UFO experience precedes and transcends its variegated pop cultural simulations. Graham goes to great lengths to maintain that, on the one hand, art imitates life, that “art” masks and perverts “life” (otherwise he couldn’t mount his criticisms of the way the media of mass culture undermine and overthrow UFO reality in the popular understanding and imagination), while, on the other, the society of the spectacle and our hyperreal present “dissolve the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fantasy,’ between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’.” Uncharitably, we could accuse Graham of incoherence and move on, but a more informed understanding might argue his thinking has fallen prey to a process that bedevils not only attempts to maintain a rigid binary opposition but, in this case, to collapse such oppositions. In either case, the very logic that would oppose two terms, if rigorously followed through, will show how each inseparably implicates the other, while here, the logic that would dissolve difference inescapably reinscribes it.

Graham’s main insight, that UFO reality is displaced both in its character (its “image”) and import (meaning) by its mass cultural fictional representations is well-taken, to a point. What’s absent is a more profound appreciation for how the UFO phenomenon is caught up in mass media in general, whether factual or fictional, and how both the “real” experience of the phenomenon and its representation in whatever medium mutually inform each other at the source. The conflict, then, is not so much between life and art as between competing media representations. Graham’s argument is premissed on Baconian, pre-semiotic (strictly, pre-1800!) assumptions about representation, that a self-sufficient, ready-made world precedes and transcends our perceptions and representations of it, whose accuracy depends upon how closely they correspond to their original.

More seriously, the question as to why the “real” phenomenon is perverted in just the ways it is needs be addressed (which, I believe, is part of the purpose of the book his reflections on the hyperreality of the UFO conclude). One answer would point to the commodity form, the way under capitalism everything imaginable is harvested, processed, packaged, and marketed, from DNA to data. This reflection might reveal why representations of either the “real” phenomenon or its fictional representations mask, pervert, “skew and distort” the UFO, not “through the ideological framework” of those who produce these factual or fictional representations, but precisely because of or as the ideology within which the UFO is encountered and that encounter communicated (sold).

 

Rime & Confirmation: two excerpts from Orthoteny (w.i.p.)

The motivation behind all the work here in these Skunkworks is the composition of a version of that “modern myth of things seen in the sky”, whose working title is Orthoteny. That title is taken from the ufological writings of Aimé Michel, specifically his Flying Saucers and the Straight-line Mystery (1958).

Within the texture of the poetic work, such straight lines are the rimes or repetitions between parts of the myth or that connect the myth to the wider field of human culture. Within the phenomenon itself, such repetitions of shape, behaviour, and other features are taken as confirmation of the objective reality of UFOs and the entities associated with them. Such echoes are also often adduced as evidence the phenomenon has been a constant in human history. Ufologically, I am vigilantly critical of such ahistorical thinking, but in the context of the mythopoetic work they lend the theme vista.

As an example, I post two excerpts from the work-in-progress. The first is the fourth section of the poetic sequence, Magonian Latitudes, from my 1996 trade edition Ladonian Magnitudes, concerning the Thirteenth century story of a cloud ship whose anchor got caught in the door arch of Saint Kinarus’ Church, Cloera County, Ireland. (Irish poet and Nobel Prize laureate Seamus Heaney treats the same theme in the eighth section of his poem “Lightenings” from his 1991 collection Seeing Things). The second is from a section of my chapbook On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery (1995), “The Phantom Air Ship” that concerns an analogous story, this time from Merkel, Texas, in 1897.

 

[from Magonian Latitudes]

 

A marvel in Cloera County

            interrupted Sunday Mass

It befell an anchor on a rope

            caught in Saint Kinarus’ door-arch

Where the line ended in clouds

            the congregation saw some kind of ship

One crewman dove and swam down

            as if to free the flukes from the keystone

But they seized and would hold him

            but that the Bishop

On grounds terrestrial air

            may well drown one celestial

Forbade it

            and freed

Quick as limbs can swim he rose

            to hands on ropes and ladders

The anchor rang and cut

            the line coiled down about them

 

[from On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery] 26 April [1897]

 

Sunday in Merkel church-goers returning from evening service saw a dragging along the ground

Followed it bounce onto the tracks and catch a rail

A light ship’s anchor roped high up to a lamp brighter than a locomotive’s

And lit gondola-windows of an air ship

After nine minutes a small man in a cobalt blue jumpsuit

Came down the line to look things over and cut it

 

 

 

RE: UFO Realities

As a thought experiment, assume the truth of a version of what I’ll call here, however inexactly and for my own purposes, tha Psychosocial Hypothesis, that all UFO sightings and entity encounters are nothing more than misperceptions, reports, rumours, stories, hallucinations, hoaxes, everything that adds up to the UFO mythology, that UFOs are witnessed and reported, entities seen and encountered, the whole phenomenon taken seriously at times even by the world’s militaries, only because the ubiquitous “visionary rumour”, as Jung called it, is a self-sustaining process:  the rumour inspires misperceptions and fantasies, which maintain and propel the myth into the future. In this scenario, UFO reality turns out to be precisely and exclusively a spontaneous, collective, variegated (inconsistent) mythology, arguably an expression of the anxieties and compensatory fantasies (aspirations) of the present moment of our (capitalist) technological society and culture. In this case, is UFO reality nothing? Not at all.

The claim that the workings of the psyche and culture are nothing, subjective rather than objective and therefore unreal, of no account, makes the same error because it shares the same assumptions as those who dismiss the UFO as unreal because it is “only” a product of the individual or collective psyche.

Those who would suffer a loss of faith if they accepted what I call the Psychosocial Hypothesis above, if the UFO, like God, were to die, and those who express their skepticism regarding the reality of the UFO by affirming this theory are both, in a sense, positivists:  they believe consciously or otherwise that whatever is “subjective” is unreal, because it is ultimately explainable in “objective” terms from an impersonal, third-party point-of-view by those natural sciences whose epistemological and metaphysical commitments are some version of physicalism (that only what is grasped and articulated by physics is real) or scientific realism.

First, one needs disabuse oneself of the vulgar confusion of the subjective with the idiosyncrasies of the individual, personal soul or psyche. Though I’m the first to resist the recently fashionable talk of the Death of the Subject (roughly, that the subjective is nothing more than an effect of impersonal social forces, such as language), it remains the case the subject is no self-enclosed, immaculate, solipsistic space. If the reality of the UFO is not physical but cultural, it is hardly “only” subjective, hardly a creation ex nihilo by the artistic genius of a personal Unconscious singular as the Abrahamic God, but is rather a condensation, rearticulation, and transformation of existing cultural materials no less “real” (impersonal, public, objective) than the putative physical reality of the UFO.

Those who would lose interest in the whole issue were the physical reality of the UFO taken off the table suffer a kind of fetishism. They imbue a Golden Calf they themselves have cast with a deity (reality) and when this hypostasized power is revealed as illusory, their cosmos is desecrated and empty. What has captured the interest of thinkers and scholars from Carl Jung to Thomas Bullard and even those with some investment in some version of UFO reality, such as Jacques Vallée or Jeffrey Kripal, is that the UFO phenomenon from an “atheist” perspective, that of a non-believer, still presents us with the rare spectacle of a folklore, mythology, or religion in the making. Little wonder then some of those moved to devote their lives to the disciplined study of such things focus their attention on the “visionary rumour” that has infiltrated the world’s imagination over the decades following the the Second World War. Imagine being able to bring to bear all the refined methodologies of the human sciences in a first-hand manner to the emergence of Christianity from the foment of the Gnostic context in the Near East two thousand years ago (regardless of the historical reality of Jesus), or those innumerable Gnostic sects themselves, or to observe the process of the emergence of Buddhism (aside from the literal truth of the moment of enlightenment under the banyan tree or the Buddha’s suicide by mushroom). To discount or disparage curiosity over such things is simply coarse and narrow.

If we turn from the speculation that the UFO is strictly a psychosocial phenomenon, lacking physical objecthood to another, that the UFO is physically real, either in a way our physics can grasp or not, does the psychosociocultural reality examined above become of no account? Not at all.

Consider just two examples. Beginning with Passport to Magonia (1969) and more overtly in The Invisible College (1975) and Messengers of Deception (1979), Jacques Vallée’s conjectures moved away from the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis to a variety of more provocative possibilities. Aside from the exploitation of the mythology by the founders of New Religious Movements (such as the International Raelian Movement or, more notoriously, Heaven’s Gate), military and intelligence services (explored in his Revelations (1993)), and shadowier private groups, Vallée has maintained a belief in a reality to the phenomenon that, however, is not what it seems. One theme that runs through his reflections in this regard is that UFO sightings and related entity encounters are staged to effect human belief and culture. He evokes this scenario in the opening pages of his science-fiction novel Fastwalker (1996) where a military agency abducts a primitive from New Guinea and shows him Star Wars in a state of altered awareness. As I’ve been led to suggest elsewhere (here and here), if we accept Vallée’s theses concerning how both human and nonhuman agents manipulate the myth, then bringing the human sciences to bear on how the myth might function would reveal no less “real” effects than those physical ones listed in the 2003 paper Vallée co-authored with Eric Davis, “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”.

If we turn to an even more orthodox if less compelling view, that espoused by agitators for Disclosure, that governments around the world make public all they know about the phenomenon and official contact and relations with extraterrestrials (ETs), then the reality of the psychosociocultural dimension is even more pronounced. In A.D.:  After Disclosure (2012), co-authored by Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel, the authors speculate that revelations of both the physical reality of ETs and decades-long relations with them would shatter and remake every major social institution:  politics, economics, science, religion, and culture (a thesis that would have been lent some weight had they grounded their imaginings in at least some scholarship relevant to their claims or the institutions they see effected…).

I am not arguing here for an exclusively “psychosocial” approach to the UFO mystery, or even that such an angle of engagement might be sufficient in itself for resolving that mystery. What I do maintain is that the relation between the UFO phenomenon and the culture to which or within which it appears is a dialectical one:  no phenomenon without something “seen in the skies”, but nothing witnessed without a witness, always situated and oriented in a world always-already articulated, made sense of, by the matrix of culture out of which that witness comes to awareness of reality, of the world, the cosmos, and itself.

 

 

 

Getting a Grip on the Protean Character of UFO & Entity Encounters

One challenging aspect of the UFO / Entity Encounter phenomenon is its protean variety. The ever-new sizes and shapes of UFOs have frustrated attempts to catalogue and schematize them, to the point that skeptics have pointed to this characteristic as proof the phenomenon lacks objective reality. Likewise, the equally wild diversity of related entities, whether apparent Extraterrestrials (ETs) , Bigfoot, Elves and Faeries, the Blessed Virgin Mary, etc. has been used to argue for their subjective basis in the theorizing of, e.g., Jose Caravaca.

A little reflection, however, introduces a dialectical complication:  if UFOs and entities vary so much from one another that each sighting or encounter is radically, singularly different, how is it possible that any of these phenomena are experienced as UFOs, ETs, Sasquatch, Faeries, angels or demons, etc. in the first place? How to square the tension between the undeniable theme of sameness in the equally observable variation from encounter to encounter? The structuralist linguistics provisionally set forth by Ferdinand de Saussure that inspired the later development of semiology and semiotics is suggestive in this regard.

In attempting to put linguistics on a scientific basis, Saussure made a number of salient distinctions. The phenomenon under investigation was first divided into what in French are termed parole and langue, usually translated as speech and language. Parole or speech is the empirical, sensuous aspect of language, while langue or language is the abstract system of rules that underwrites the possibility of the sounds, marks, and gestures of parole functioning as a language, as meaningful, in the first place.

Language-as-linguistic-structure is composed of signs, from phonemes or graphemes to syntagma (but not, curiously, words), and the rules for their combination and mutual interchangeability (replacement). What is essential to Saussure’s account is that speech (parole) is concrete, sensuous, empirical, while language (langue) is abstract, conceptual. The sign is a unit composed of two parts, a signifier and a signified (which is where a tradition of fateful misunderstanding arises that flows down to the present, wide and deep…).

When I hear or read a linguistic utterance, an instance of parole, what Saussure termed a phonic or graphic chain, I must hear or read it as a sequence of signs (the sounds of a language (phonemes), the symbols of a written language, etc.). Empirical reality, however, as philosophers have reminded us since before Plato, is, in the words of William James, “a bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion.” No phonic chain is ever acoustically the same from instance to instance:  it’s louder, softer, faster, slower, etc.. For an utterance to function linguistically, an auditor must make an educated guess as to its significance (“Was that ‘catch’ or ‘cash’?”), i.e., posit a signified, a concept, which invokes the recognition of a linguistic type (a signifier) whereby the empirical, unrepeatable phonic or graphic chain of parole becomes an instance of a sign or combination of signs, whereby understanding (meaning, semantics) becomes possible at all. Saussure’s fundamental insight here is that were language only its sensuous, empirical, nonrepeatable aspect, then language as we in fact experience and speak it in its characteristically iterable structures would not exist.

The analogy to the problem of the protean character of the UFO and entities, how they can both differ radically from encounter to encounter yet still present sufficient consistencies to be recognized as this rather than that at all, is (perhaps) clear. Individual sightings and encounters, like the particular perception of any empirical particular, whether the cats in my neighbourhood or the sounds out of my partner’s mouth, will always be different, akin to parole. However, for them to enter experience at all, as Misster Kitty, the words “I love you”, or Sasquatch emerging from a flying saucer to abduct a calf with its pet Chupacabra, they must be subject to an interpretive, conceptual process, analogous to the functioning of langue.

The empirical differences between sighted UFOs and entities encountered speaks against a unified reality underwriting them no more than the sensuous variegation of parole mitigates against langue, that system of concepts (signifieds) and schematic “images” (signifiers), which underwrites the very possibility of the apprehension of speech as such in the first place. This analogy, furthermore, speaks to the potential possibility of a semiology of UFOs or entity encounters, an approach that, suspending questions of the ontology of what is meaningfully perceived, focusing on the conditions for that meaning in the first place, would be amenable to either a realist ufology (e.g., especially that proposed by Jacques Vallée) or a purely sociological one concerned with the strictly, “fictional” mythological significance of the phenomena in question.

“What IS that?!”–Notes on perceiving the anomalous

Sequoyah Kennedy over at Mysterious Universe brings to our attention a sighting of a “dancing fireball” over Northhampton, England. Aside from the startling strangeness of the sighting itself, the reaction of one witness, Luke Pawsey, 20, is no less thought-provoking:

I genuinely believe there’s extraterrestrial life out there but we’re just not aware of it or we’re too naive to think there isn’t anything out there. I think it’s an unidentified flying object (UFO) but when people imagine that they think of a spaceship which I don’t think it was. But how do we know what’s out there, especially if it doesn’t exist to us? It could be aliens but I don’t want to say for certain as I don’t know.

Pawsey is clear-headed enough not to identify “UFO” with “alien spaceship”, but it’s telling the way his quoted words here leap immediately to that all-too-common reflexive theory and orbit the constellation of related ideas:  “extraterrestrial life”, “UFO”, “spaceship”, and “aliens”.

Had this fireball been witnessed in 1019 rather than 2019, a chronicler of the time might have recorded it as a dragon or sign from heaven, as either a natural or supernatural occurrence, rather than extraterrestrial or unknown. This speculation prompts at least two questions:  first, why doesn’t the modern witness imagine he has seen, say, some natural, albeit strange, phenomenon, or something man-made, such as some unusual fireworks, and, second, if the category “unknown” was even available to our imagined, medieval scribe, given the closed world he lived in, in contrast to the one opened to scientific investigation by the withdrawal or death of God (here, the theological interpretation of the world). (Curious, how a world with little knowledge of nature might at the same time also lack the unknown, while one in which such knowledge becomes possible and actual simultaneously allows the admission of ignorance).  Also significant is how both posit a potentially extramundane origin, but, for the premodern, “out-of-this-world” means outside of nature, time and space, whereas for the modern it means within the cosmos, from however exotic a locale (e.g., another dimension). At any rate, what is true for both is that the witness to an anomalous experience seeks to make sense of it in the first instance according to an existing set of categories, a set that varies over time and place.

Frederic_Church_Meteor_of_1860

If the Northhamptom fireball had not behaved in so puzzling a way, but had traced a more-or-less straight, regular vector, an astronomer, for example, would have readily identified it as a meteor. The difference between the astronomer’s perception and the mystified one of Pawsey and our fictional scribe can be illuminated by a rough-and-ready reference to a distinction made by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He distinguishes between two kinds of “judgement” (Urteilen, in German), two ways the subject and predicate of a thought or statement might be joined (e.g., “The fireball [subject] is luminous [predicate]”). A determinative judgement brings a particular intuition (e.g., the luminous body depicted above) under a general rule (the features of a meteor), while a reflective judgement, lacking a general rule for a particular intuition (e.g., the unusual fireball seen by Pawsey), needs to either discover, find or invent, a general rule. The mystified reaction to an anomalous experience is in a sense the bewilderment brought about by the lack of concept that would categorize the experience or otherwise make sense of it, which inspires the imagination’s excited search over a chain of possibilities:  “What is that? This or this or this or this…?”

This approximate application of Kant’s distinction is not especially illuminating, as far as it goes, until we introduce what motivates it. Kant brings the notion of the reflective judgement to bear (in a much more nuanced and complex way than I do here) in his Critique of Judgement, his discussion of the perception of the beautiful in art and nature. Neither the work of art, the sublime landscape, or even an organism in its purposiveness (the way it seems designed for its place in nature) are objects of knowledge the way the instantiation of a natural law is (the subject of a determinative judgement), rather each needs be grasped in their respective singularity. The work of art’s demanding an active engagement for its understanding and appreciation (especially since the advent of artistic Modernism in more or less the Nineteenth century), that we discover, find or invent new concepts proper to it, gives art the purchase to reconfigure or re-articulate the concepts we use to understand the world in general, whereby art can be said to provide a kind of knowledge or truth, reminding us that seeing as is at least as important as the is of identification of the sciences, if not at its foundation. The implication for anomalous experience is obvious:  like the work of art the anomalous experience demands at least a reconfiguration of existing knowledge if not the development of new concepts and hypotheses.

Admittedly, not much has been said here that would essentially differentiate Pawsey’s experience from that of the first European to encounter a platypus. In both cases, something that fails to fit our existing scheme of things demands that scheme be revised, expanded and rearticulated. Kant develops the notion of the reflective judgement not only to make sense of the beautiful but of induction, too. It thus has a function both in our knowledge of nature (where it leads to determinative judgements) and culture, which argues for the thesis that the anomalous UFO phenomenon, specifically and especially, be tackled not only as a challenge to (natural) science or to the social sciences (what the French term les sciences humaines et sociales) but both. That is, it is both a potential object of knowledge and understanding and that the collaboration if not synthesis of what we might term the Symbolic orders of the natural and human sciences is demanded of the phenomenon itself. That is, a key to understanding the UFO phenomenon might be to approach it as much as an aesthetic object as an object to be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method.

We have arrived, therefore, at the same point, though via a different route, as my reflections about the implications of thinking the UFO as “postmodern”. The proposal that the UFO phenomenon in general might usefully be approached in a radically interdisciplinary manner dovetails into more-or-less explicit positions taken in the 2003 paper co-authored between Jacques Vallée and Eric Davis “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”. There Vallée and Davis call for both physics, experimental and theoretical, and semiotics to be be brought to bear on the manifold strangeness of the phenomenon. An implication of Vallée’s repeated idea that the phenomenon of the UFO and related entities is in a sense staged to achieve a subliminal, long-term cultural change is that it need be analyzed semiotically, i.e., with a view to grasping it in the first place as a system of meanings, with a syntax and lexicon, i.e., following that pioneer of semiology, Roland Barthes, as a “mythology”.

An Important Consequence of the “Postmodern” Reality of the UFO

[“Trigger Warning”:  I explore here one implication of the reality, Reality, hyperreality, and hyporeality of the UFO phenomenon sketched here. I refer to this reality of the UFO as “postmodern”, because the discussion takes its initial impulse and orientation from the notion of hyperreality, first developed by that premiere postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Readers triggered by the expression “postmodern” are urged to read the initial post linked above, before going off half-cocked, like a Jordan-Peterson-with-his-head-cut-off…]

In his discussion of 9/11 and related matters, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Žižek characteristically unfolds one dialectical implication of the attack. On one hand, it represents an intrusion of “the Real” into “everyday social reality”:  the shock of the Event reorients and reconfigures the settled world we thought we knew and assumed to be fundamentally unchanging. In this assumed stability, “average everydayness” represents a kind of spontaneous, perennial “End of History“. However, on the other, despite all the very real destruction and death (which continues to this day in the various health problems suffered by first responders and others), the perpetrators never believed that felling the Twin Towers or even the Pentagon or White House would bring down America’s economy, military, or government. The attacks were primarily symbolic, intended, in part, to disabuse continental Americans forever of an assumed, invulnerable security, hence comparisons of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. Moreover, for most of the world, the event was purely mediated:  in most minds, the attacks now are, in a sense, those obsessively repeated images of the planes hitting the towers or their collapse. In the theatricality and profound mediation of the attacks the effect of the Real becomes hyperreal, a representation, a sign, a meaning, endlessly repeated, echoing out into the future (though hardly without its real world effects).

The UFO phenomenon (including entity encounters) is curious, because it arguably inhabits not only the real (as ubiquitous pop culture meme), but the Real (as a startling and disturbing experience that upsets settled, assumed notions of reality), the hyperreal (as an existing representation whereby an anomalous experience is identified and confirmed as a UFO experience), and the hyporeal (the highly strange that simultaneously outstrips and potentially expands the existing hyperreal repertoire of recognizable UFO phenomena). But what’s salient here is how the dialectic between the UFO’s Reality and hyperreality might parallel the dialectic Žižek unfolds with regard to 9/11.

Jacques Vallée has over decades consistently argued that the provocative irrationality of persistent features of the phenomenon mitigates against the theory that we are dealing with visitors, explorers, or invaders from other planets, dimensions, or times. Such high strangeness, more a characteristic feature of the phenomenon than a site of hyporeal difference, is a mark of its Reality, its dramatic demand we reorient or reconfigure the categories by which we make sense of the world in order to integrate and assimilate the phenomenon’s bizarre behaviour. However, it’s precisely how destructive (if not deconstructive) the phenomenon is of our existing worldview in just this way that stages the phenomenon’s theatricality:  the phenomenon is no longer what it appears to be (an alien spaceship surrounded by its crew collecting soil and plant samples, for example) but enacts a meaning beyond itself, i.e., it becomes a sign.

Roland Barthes, in his significantly titled work Mythologies, elucidates just this situation with an example drawn from his “everyday social reality”:

I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.

In the same way that the significance of the sample Latin clause is not the meaning of its constituent words, so the significance of the UFO phenomenon is not its apparent behaviour but what this behaviour might be understood to point to.

To my knowledge the only time Vallée explicitly refers to the discipline of semiotics is in his 2003 paper co-authored with Eric Davis (“Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”). The rigorous implication of Vallée’s longheld thesis concerning the irrational character and behaviour of the phenomenon is that a true understanding is not to be won by the physical sciences but the human sciences, that what is demanded by the phenomenon itself is that it be approached not as an anomalous natural occurrence but a semiotic phenomenon. What is called for, therefore, is not primarily some supplement to or revision of our physics but a semiotics or, following Barthes’ early articulations, a semiology of the UFO mythology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encounter in the desert of the Real

The desert of the real. Most who might recognize the expression will do so from The Matrix. It was, however, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who coined and invested it with a characteristic, suggestive ambiguity.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts his own spin on the notion in his work on the 9/11 attacks and related matters, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. There, he contrasts “everyday social reality” with that Real that explodes our expectations concerning that “average everydayness”, such as 9/11 or Ernst Jünger’s experience as a storm trooper in the Great War of “face-to-face combat as the authentic intersubjective encounter.” In general, the irruption or intrusion of the Real recasts, redefines, and reconfigures what we had taken for normal or possible or “real”. In this sense, surely, the UFO or Entity encounter, in their disturbing uncanniness, count as such an experience of the Real.

Baudrillard is equally famous (or infamous, depending on who one talks to) for developing the notion of hyperreality (in his work Simulacra and Simulation). In a media-saturated society, the relation between original and copy becomes reversed, where the copy insures the truth of the original, to the point where even talk of originals and copies becomes senseless. American novelist Don DeLillo provides a good example:  in his novel about the Kennedy assassination, Libra, a woman in the crowd that has come out to see the president says excitedly, “Oh! He looks just like his pictures!”.

Poweplant

Representations of UFOs and aliens, whether of “authentic” photographs, artists’ renditions, or images endlessly produced by the media of popular culture have proliferated since 1947. In this environment, skeptics are quick to observe, credulous, imaginative, or otherwise fantasy-prone persons, let alone lay people or “well-trained observers” will draw on this image bank to interpret objects they cannot identify:  the UFO looks just like its pictures, factual or fictional.

Of course, as the cognoscenti will be quick to reply, UFOs and the entities associated with them demonstrate a wild variation, to the point that any recognizable consistency in their appearance is stretched almost to a breaking point (a thesis held especially by Jose Caravaca). And this observation is surely so, limiting the explanatory power of the skeptic’s argument, above. UFOs and their associated entities sometimes appear with such high strangeness they transcend their existing representations, reinstating their unidentifiable, anomalous character. This singularity (which can get caught up in the subsequent forging of a chain of representations, the process of the production of hyperreality) I propose to call hyporeal, in contrast to Baudrillard’s coinage.

But the UFO and related entities are not to be caught in even so neatly woven a net of terminology. In the way that it inspires awe and terror akin to the numinousity of religious experience forever altering the worldview of the witness or experiencer the UFO is an instance of the Real. In as much as the UFO or entity is recognized as such, resembling its media representations, the UFO sighting or entity encounter is an example of hyperreality. Alternatively, the high strangeness of a sighting or encounter that reinscribes the alien otherness to the phenomenon is a mark of its being hyporeal. However, the UFO and extraterrestrial, being ubiquitous to popular culture, regardless of the specific import of that omnipresence, is an aspect of our “average everydayness”, something the child being raised in a culture learns about, making it no less real than any other thing we encounter in our “everyday social reality”.

[Thanks to MJ Banias for originally provoking reflection on just how Žižek’s thoughts might apply to the UFO.]

What do UFOs have to do with it?

I’ve noticed recently how those sincerely interested in the UFO mystery can at the same time dismiss the idea that the phenomenon might possess a more general import. Here and elsewhere I’ve read comments such as, “the UFO culture is now purely entertainment,” “the number of people who actively engage with the UFO topic on a frequent and regular basis (go beyond merely occasionally watching a video clip, listening to a sound bite, or scanning an article) represents a small percentage of the US population,” and that the “real UFO conspiracy [is] why the UFOs have become a joke and such an embarrassing subject in ‘serious’ conversation,” all in stark contrast to the unabashed and breathless enthusiasm of those fascinated by the idea of  Disclosure (that at least one of the world’s governments has been in contact with extraterrestrials (ETs) for decades and has been gifted or back-engineered their technology).

“The UFO topic” that that “small percentage” of the population engages with is approximated by, for example, recent stories concerning U.S. Navy encounters with apparently anomalous aeroforms and History’s latest series Project Blue Book and Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation. As has been the case since Donald Keyhoe wrote his books, in this arena the UFO is invariably imagined to be either an extraterrestrial spaceship or maybe a domestic or foreign aeronautical breakthrough, even for those not unacquainted with Jacques Vallée’s Magonians, John Keel’s ultraterrestrials, or even Mac Tonnies’ crypoterrestrials, or more recent speculations concerning other dimensions and times. The demographic represented by this “small percentage” is imaginably very slight (though one does wonder just what empirical research would in fact show).

On the other hand, since 1947, consistently roughly half the population in North America and Europe believe “flying saucers are real” (however seriously), and, over the same time, the UFO and the ufonauts have invaded and colonized popular culture, so that the UFO as a cultural phenomenon now has a higher brand recognition than, say, Odysseus and Ulysses. It is precisely this liminal ubiquity—being both everywhere but hardly at the centre of attention—that empowers the UFO and ET to express something of, and thereby illuminate, if not overtly influence, the culture at large.

The UFO-as-sign (as a vehicle of meaning) functions both factually and fictionally, regardless of whatever reality the UFO might ultimately turn out to possess. As something taken as real, it has clearly reflected the anxieties of the times. Jung, as is well-known, argued the flying saucer functioned as a compensatory mechanism for the anxieties provoked by the Cold War. On one hand, its circular, mandala shape symbolized the unity absent from a sundered world, while, on another, its seeming a spaceship from a technically-advanced society made it a deus ex machina, an otherworldy, salvific intervention into what seemed a perilous, humanly insoluble crisis. His insight was confirmed by the pacifist messages delivered by the Space Brothers of Adamski and the other Contactees of the 1950s. Decades later, with advances in reproductive technologies, such as the Human Genome Project, the potential for human cloning, and in vitro fertilization, little wonder the hypnotically-induced fantasies of women who believed they’d been abducted by aliens should express the anxieties proper to their time and gender, or that abductees in general sometimes claimed they were shown images of global, often ecological, catastrophe by their abductors just at the time ecological consciousness was dawning toward the glaring near-noon zenith it has reached today.

Given the spontaneous significance attributed to “the visionary rumour” of the UFO and ET contact, it should come as little surprise, likewise, that the creative imagination should find in it an endlessly fecund figurative resonance. Cinema (as Robbie Graham would likely agree) and to a lesser extent television perhaps more than any other media have made the most of this material, as, for example, a metaphor for race (in the films The Brother from Another Planet, Alien Nation, or District 9), global warming (The Arrival), mass extinction (The X-Files episode “Fearful Symmetry”), and the insatiable rapaciousness of capitalism (Independence Day).

For example, the remake of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still twists together the anxious and the hopeful. On the one hand, the alien Klaatu is sent to earth to oversee the destruction of every trace of humankind and its civilization that are rendering the planet uninhabitable for complex life; however, nonhuman, animal organisms are taken up by spherical craft that serve as arks to preserve them from the cleansing process so they may be reintroduced after its completion. Fortunately, Klaatu is persuaded to avert the eradication of human life and, instead, brings to a standstill the technology whose destructive effects brought about the crisis. (The credits roll too soon, though: the results of a global cessation of mechanical technology would doubtless prove catastrophic, resulting in, among other things, mass starvation, with the paralysis of transportation, food processing, and agriculture, a far more cruel, drawn-out process of eradication than the one initially proposed by Klaatu’s civilization!).

The ecological focus and critique of “development” are clear; the imagined solutions, however, are, ironically, hopeless:  humankind itself is incapable of collective action to avert ecological destruction; it, therefore, stands in need of an external, overpowering intervention, whose only proposed solutions are the elimination of homo sapiens (in line with the biocentric ideology of EarthFirst! or the more recent philosophy of anti-natalism) or of the technologies of the so-called developed world. The film’s solutions to our very real problem are less acceptable than the premise of the film as a whole, framing the urgent crisis at its heart as insoluble, inspiring either a resigned fatalism, or, more charitably, a reflective search for alternatives to the unacceptable dilemma posed by the film itself.

The cinematic versions of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and 2010:  The Year We Make Contact develop the theme of the deus ex machina, but along a slightly different trajectory. Both are stories about the guided development (mental or spiritual if not morphological) of anthropomorphic life, from the proto-, to the human, to the meta- or hyperhuman. The genius for tool-use, from a bone-as-club to interplanetary spacecraft and AI, is sparked in the genus Homo by an extraterrestrial agent, represented by an enigmatic, black monolith. One such monolith discovered on the moon, prompts an exploratory expedition to Jupiter, where astronaut Dave Bowman is “evolved” to a superhuman being. In the sequel, a subsequent expedition to discover what happened to the first sets in motion the transformation of Jupiter and its moons into a miniature solar system, a supplementary space for human habitation and resource extraction intended to ease tensions on an overcrowded earth that narrowly escapes nuclear war.

In this fictional universe, the Promethean spirit of technological ingenuity (and power) is posited as a kind of divine spark. Striking it in the protohuman creates a being in the image of the mysterious makers of the black monolith, who guide and shape humankind to ever higher technological achievement and biological/spiritual development ultimately, one might suppose, with the goal of having us attaining their level. It is difficult not to detect a value system underwriting this narrative. Ironically, technological sophistication (e.g., the capacity to invent and build weapons of mass destruction) is not accompanied by a moral or social sense equal to governing the species-suicidal potential of our technical know-how, so, otherworldly intervention is needed. Two problems present themselves. First, if technological savvy is not accompanied by the collective intelligence necessary to control it, then how did the makers of the black monoliths survive this impasse? Secondly, the solution they provide is stop-gap: the essential problem of infinite growth in a finite environment that characterizes the economic system of capitalism, whose advent underwrote the Industrial Revolution, is only temporarily solved by adding more Lebensraum and exploitable resources. The solution to earth’s problems in 2010 seem in hindsight a metaphor for the planned exploration and resource extraction within the solar system and the asteroid belt, the setting for the television series The Expanse and an important assumption in Aaron Bastani’s manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In this case, the imagined solutions to our real problems amount to either faith (indistinguishable from the Christian’s that all works out in God’s plan for humankind) and/or more of the (doomed) same.

In both fact and fiction, then, the UFO and ET appear within the horizon of, and expressing, the existential crises of our time, solving by means of their superiour technology the dire problems the development and deployment of our own have brought to pass. The human being, moreover, plays a singular, special role:  the ufonauts spontaneously recognize homo sapiens as their earthly counterpart among all the other species of life on earth, because of a shared Promethean character, due either to their having implanted it in us or to its being natural to intelligent life:  intelligence implies tool-use, which is merely nascent technology. In the real world, even in arguments offered for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the mere fact of an existing, vastly more advanced technological civilization is evidence that ours can navigate the impasse that threatens to destroy our own, either by following their example or, as in the cinematic examples above, through their direct intervention.

It is precisely, however, the way ET mirrors ourselves, is a projection of ourselves, that gives the game away and reveals an important, if not the primary way, the UFO mythology works in society at large. As I have argued repeatedly and at length here and elsewhere, positing anthropomorphic intelligence, tool-use and technology as natural (universal) propensities to life-as-such is to treat as universal one very geographically and historically local and contingent social formation, namely that of the so-called “First” or “developed world”. This megalomaniacal projection of the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population of one form of life on earth finds a mythical legitimation in, for example, the book of Genesis wherein God creates Man in His own image and a science-fictional one in the universe of 2001 and 2010 wherein an extraterrestrial agent plays both a Promethean and parental role. In either case the destiny of humankind is imagined to be fated, necessary, and, divinely or otherwise, ordained.

The solutions to humanity’s problems proposed in both The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2010 drive this point home all the harder. Either humanity and all traces of it need disappear, or its technology must cease operating, or it must stay the course. None of these are workable. This apparent impasse however results from the assumed inalterability of the status quo:  the unspoken (because unspeakable) solution is social change. As Fredric Jameson put it so well:  “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In its affirmation of existing society, in both its factual and fictive forms the UFO-as-a-sign functions ideologically, maintaining the status quo by occluding the possibility of imagining that things might be otherwise.

Ironically, cinematic pop culture performed this ideology critique already in 1988, in John Carpenter’s They Live!. In this film, the earth has already been colonized by a malevolent alien race that maintains its power by means of a technology that creates an illusory world, that of North America in the late twentieth century. The protagonist has his eyes opened to this reality when he dons a pair of sun glasses with the power to reveal the subliminal messages of advertising and entertainment, etc. that keep humanity in its virtual chains. The deliciousness of this plot is double: the capitalist ruling class is shown “in reality” to be a repulsive, cowardly alien race, thereby inverting the motif of the ET-as-benevolent-saviour in Jung, the Contactees, and 2001 and 2010.

[Interested parties are invited to hear philosopher Slavoj Žižek present his reading of They Live! as ideology critique in his own, inimitable manner!]

Because the UFO mythology is both ubiquitous and liminal, the actual percentage of the population that might admit to consuming either documentary or fictional UFO material is beside the point. The myth is “in the air”, vaguely familiar to everyone, but hardly considered by anyone, a status that enables it to function just below and at the edges of conscious thought. When it does intrude on consciousness, as either fact or fiction, the UFO-as-sign mirrors back to us after its fashion not an Otherness but an insidious Identity. It signifies in this way through no fault of its own; a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it, and, in this case, that is the world capitalism and technology, industrial or otherwise, have made. That the UFO should appear in this way, enlisted in the maintenance of an ecocidal order, is a crime against humanity in particular and life in general, that something that should be out of this world and therefore throwing that world into relief, estranging it through difference, revealing it in all its contingency and alterability, becomes something pitifully, pathetically human, all-too-human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes towards a prolegomena to a future ufology…

[What follows are just what the title says, notes, reflections prompted by frustrating disputes over just what ufology’s aim is or should be, what approach or approaches are legitimate, compatible or incompatible, and so forth.  As such, they are partial, provisional, fitful, and not always consistent; they trace a process of thought. My first essay (attempt) on the question can be read here. A consequent attempt at clarification, here.

Further reflections are, doubtless, forthcoming, ad nauseum….]

Arnold_AAF_drawing

 

One can distinguish a “scientific ufology” from a “phenomenological ufology”. The former affirms the reality of the UFO and seeks to identify (a philosophically-loaded expression) the unidentified flying object, while the latter brackets the question of whether “flying saucers are real” and attends to the actual and potential meanings of the UFO. The former is exemplified by the investigations of physicists James E. McDonald, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter A. Sturrock, while Carl Jung’s monograph Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies is one example of the latter.

Phenomenological ufology can be divided, roughly, between a cultural and a philosophical ufology. The former takes as its object the various meanings of the UFO in the psyche, society, and culture, while the latter probes the concepts assumed and implied by the methodology of scientific ufology and by those meanings discovered by cultural ufology. Philosophical ufology, therefore, bridges the scientific / phenomenological divide, but as a purely conceptual, critical, reflective and speculative labour, does not seek to identify the unidentified flying object, to explain it, but only to determine the conditions and implications of putative if not actual identifications.

“Cultural ufology” might be better termed “Psychosocial ufology”, but then this latter expression would have to be newly-minted to avoid interference with its existing reference to a variegated set of speculations that attempt to explain (rather than grasp the meanings of, i.e., understand) the UFO.

Alternatively, different foci, between UFO Reality (for scientific ufology) and the UFO Effect (for phenomenological or cultural ufology) might be posited, too, but, then, these terms, too, are loaded: for is not the UFO Effect “real”? In fact, might it not turn out that the only reality the UFO possesses is in a class of perceptions and experiences, reports, rumours, texts, and myths? In this regard, it might be clearer to refer to an “explanatory” and “hermeneutic” ufology, along the lines drawn in the Nineteenth century by Wilhelm Dilthey between the natural and human sciences, whose respective, contrasting aims are explanation and understanding.

Scientific (explanatory) ufology will always already possess an understanding of the UFO as a condition of seeking an explanation for it, otherwise it would have, as a science, no object to investigate; phenomenological ufology, in both its cultural and philosophical branches need at no point venture from the understandings (meanings) of the object that it discovers or reflects upon toward an explanation of the object itself. Because of this condition, scientific ufology can always be a possible object for cultural or philosophical ufological investigation or reflection.

Ironically, not only is Scientific Ufology an object for Cultural Ufology, i.e., it is a possible object of investigation for it, but the cultural ufologist is closer in spirit to the believer, witness or experiencer, as for none of them is the reality of the UFO ever at stake, though in diametrically opposed ways.

Just how far phenomenological ufology can hold in abeyance committing itself ontologically one way or the other to the reality of the UFO is a serious question. At any rate, methodologically, it need not become embroiled in debates, for example, between proponents of the Extraterrestrial and Psychosocial Hypotheses. But in fact often the researcher (psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, etc.) proceeds as if the UFO sighted or the contact experience suffered were only subjective. Were the researcher to assume, conversely, the objective reality of what was seen or undergone the character of the research would be radically altered….

There is, of course, no currently existing ufology-as-such; there is hardly even a pseudoscience. There exists, rather only a vulgar, amorphous, incoherent and restless activity with neither direction nor co-ordination. Some serious investigation is carried out, often sub rosa, and more often in the cultural sphere, given its institutional support. One is tempted to abandon all talk of ufology and refer, instead, to physicists, meteorologists, geologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists, scholars of cultural studies, critical theorists, philosophers, etc. each of whose respective disciplines might take the UFO phenomenon in general as its object, thereby dissolving ufulogy (any study of the UFO) into existing and potential disciplines.

At some point, then, someone might take up the task of writing a Phenomenology of Ufology, after the example of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which would coherently order and organize all the different aspects of the UFO these individual disciplines develop. That, however, would be a belated exercise, since, in our own times (roughly since the beginning of the Twentieth century) any such underlying unity to the various sciences, natural and humanistic, has been deemed illusory, with all the troubling philosophical consequences such a fact implies, namely, that there is no unity to the world or cosmos, except as what Kant might term a Regulative Idea….

One might posit that the explanatory ufologist is concerned with the nature of what the UFO witness reports and the hermeneutic ufologist with the witness, the report, and everything that flows from that report. But the provisional clarity won by this distinction is quickly dissipated when we recall Jacques Vallée’s very early observation in his Anatomy of a Phenomenon:  Unidentified Objects in Space—A Scientific Appraisal (1965):

The phenomenon under study is not the UFO, which is not reproducible at will in the laboratory, but the report written by the witness. This report can be observed, studied and communicated by professional scientists; thus defined, the phenomenon we investigate is obviously real. (vii)

 

 

On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”

There has been lately, understandably, some miscomprehension about what I’m up to here at Skunkworks or what I’m on about in my comments at other ufological blogs (mainly UFO Conjectures). The Anomalist (31 July 2019) takes my critique of the view that for some ufophiles fragments of UFOs function like sacred relics of old as turning the question of recent claims made by To The Stars Academy that it has acquired unidentifiable metamaterials “into a philosophical disquisition”, while Rich Reynolds insists on believing I’m trying to “use the ‘techniques’ of philosophical thought to get at the UFO problem” (which for him is only the question of the reality and nature of UFOs).

One of the earliest posts here was titled “Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO”. There I distinguished Scientific Ufology (concerned with the reality, truth, and nature of the UFO) from what I called “Phenomenological” Ufology (that brackets the question of UFO Reality to focus on the UFO Effect, the varied and various ways the UFO is meaningful in culture). The discerning reader will grasp that the latter includes a study of the former, i.e., Scientific Ufology, as an activity carried out by human beings, is one aspect of the UFO Effect, but, more compellingly that the attempt to grasp the reality of the UFO comes up empty-handed, while holding the question of UFO Reality in abeyance is rewarded with a plethora of concrete phenomena for investigation.

It was of course Carl Jung whose own justly-famous thoughts on flying saucers as A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies operated under just this distinction. Since, the UFO-as-cultural-effect has been the subject of study from a wide range of disciplines, from what today is most readily recognizable as Cultural Studies (including anthropology and sociology) in works such as M. J. Banias’ The UFO People, Bridget Brown’s They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves:  The History and Politics of Alien Abduction, Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America, Brenda Denzler’s The Lure of the Edge, and the scholars collected in Deborah Battaglia’s ET Culture, to Folklore (e.g., Thomas Bullard’s The Myth and Mystery of the UFOs and David Clarke’s How UFOs Conquered the World:  The History of a Modern Myth), Religious Studies (e.g., the scholars represented in James R. Lewis’ The Gods Have Landed:  New Religions from Other Worlds, Christopher Partridge’s UFO Religions, or Diana G. Tumminia’s Alien Worlds:  Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact, the dual-authored The Supernatural:  Why the Unexplained is Real by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal, or the single-authored volumes Aliens Adored:  Raël’s UFO Religion by Susan Palmer or American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology by Diane W Pasulka), Art History (e.g., In Advance of the Landing:  Folk Concepts of Outer Space by Douglas Curran and Picturing Extraterrestrials:  Alien Images in Modern Mass Culture by John F. Moffitt), and even Philosophy (e.g., Evolutionary Metaphors:  UFOs, New Existentialism and the Future Paradigm by David J, Moore). Many other approaches and examples are possible.

One might term such studies, variously, “Meta-ufology”, “cultural ufology”, or even “philosophical ufology” if it extends, in the manner of the philosophy of science, to the assumptions and implications in the self-understanding and methodology of Scientific Ufology in particular, and the concepts underwriting or implied by the UFO Effect, in general. Surely, those concerned especially or exclusively with the question of UFO Reality-as-such, as well as the majority of ufophiles or ufomaniacs, will be unmoved and uninterested by the bookshelf I haphazardly list above, but this judgement is hardly any evaluation of the worth of the work. Ironically, not only is Scientific Ufology an object for (let’s call it) Cultural Ufology, i.e., it is subsumed by it, but the cultural ufologist is closer in spirit to the believer, witness or experiencer, as for none of them is the reality of the UFO ever at stake(!).

But most importantly for myself, as any persistent reader of Skunkworks will grasp, it is precisely the teasing and evasive significance of the UFO no less alluring and ungraspable than the thing itself (whatever in fact that may turn out to be) that’s at issue here. Skunkworks is a workshop labouring to design a working version of The Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (or what the German Romantics called for as “a New Mythology”, or William Burroughs as “a mythology for the Space Age”). As a poet, I look to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, for inspiration, which did for classical mythology what might be accomplished for this one. In the meantime, one can only brainstorm, take notes, draw up blueprints and build working models in the hope that one day to get something off the ground.

You can read a copy of one of the prototypes for this project here, and hear it being performed by the author, here. Others I’ve posted here are readable under the “poems” tag.

 

 

 

 

On the launch of MJ Banias’ The UFO People

Monday 29 July 2019, MJ Banias launched his first book, The UFO People, in his hometown of Winnipeg.

I had a commitment of my own that evening, in Montreal, to give a poetry reading at the Accent Reading series. Though I couldn’t help Banias celebrate in person, at least I was able to acknowledge the launch of his book with a performance of the poem “Flying Saucers” from my book Grand Gnostic Central.

Congratulations, MJ! A review of your book is forthcoming (eventually) here at Skunkworks…

 

Concerning traces, metamaterials and relics…

In the wake of the recently widely-publicized U.S. Navy encounters with Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) and History’s Unidentified:  Inside America’s UFO Investigation, comes the claim that To The Stars Academy (TTSA) has acquired samples of “metamaterials” “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin.”

Stories of such materials are, however, old news. Keith Basterfield has compiled A Preliminary  Catalogue of Alleged ‘Fragments’ Reportedly Associated with Sightings of  Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Where Analysis(es) was/were Conducted” of cases from 1897 to 2014. Reports of such fragments followed quickly on the heels of Kenneth Arnold’s eponymous sighting of “flying saucers” in 1947:  as will be well-known to the cognoscenti, Fred Crisman and Harold Dahl claimed to have witnessed six doughnut-shaped craft near Maury Island, Washington, three days before Arnold’s sighting, one of which ejected what appeared to be a white-hot, liquid metal. Since, witnesses have reported, for example, oily residues and powders and sometimes metal fragments, which were either ejected from the UFO or all that remained of it after it was seen to explode in midair. Traces of this sort were seized on for their forensic significance, as evidence of the sighting or landing and perhaps of some clue as to its nature.

The most famous of such cases, however, is doubtless Roswell, which, in this regard, added a layer to the merely forensic. Philip J. Corso’s The Day After Roswell sets out how materials recovered from the flying saucer that putatively crashed in July 1947 were studied and reverse-engineered into the components that made the modern, digital world possible, such as transistors and fibre-optic cables. TTSA’s ADAM Research Project (Acquisition and Data Analysis of Materials) was founded precisely to focus “on the exploitation of exotic materials for technological innovation”, namely those metamaterials TTSA has secured, “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin.”

It’s not my purpose here to judge the authenticity of TTSA’s claims (though they don’t look very compelling, if Robert Sheaffer’s points are valid…). Rather, I propose to reflect on the meaning such traces and fragments hold for the ufophilic. Diane Pasulka, in her American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology, argues UFO phenomena bear a strong resemblance to traditional religious experience, likening the Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila to an encounter experience and the fragment she, James, and Tyler find in the American southwest to “an artifact of hierophany” (50), “a manifestation of the sacred.” Of course, such analogies are hardly new. Jacques Vallee, more for stylistic effect than analysis, writes in the opening pages of his Revelations (1997):

Like any emerging movement, this one has its shrines. Examples include Kirtland Air Force Base, with its crypts of mystery, and Dulce, New Mexico, with its great temples to which spiritual energy can be directed by the faithful. Because this is a technocratic movement, its capitals are not called Saint Peter’s, Mecca, Jerusalem, or Salt Lake City. Their designations are code names, words of power:  Hangar 18, Majestic 12, and Area 51. (19)

And, from a less religious but no less metaphysical perspective, Rich Reynolds speculates “if we get our hands on a UFO – really get hold of one – I think that we could find out what our reality consists of, what actually our existence’s sine qua non may be.”

However, as I have argued since my earliest theoretical (as opposed to poetical) interventions into the ufulogical, theses such as Pasulka’s are misguided because ahistorical, as they ignore the radical break between premodern and modern culture:  the modern, if not postmodern, era is, in part, characterized by a loss of the metaphysical or supernatural. Where, for Catholics, for example, the Shroud of Turin is evidence of a supernatural intervention in human affairs, any part of a UFO, whether Extraterrestrial, Extradimensional, or Extratemporal (from another time if not place), let alone merely exotic and all-too-earthly, would evidence only another, however novel, phenomenon immanent to nature and its laws.

The advent of the Scientific Revolution, along with Kant’s Critical Philosophy, is a dimension of a process wherein and whereby any possible object, however strange or uncanny, is never more than natural. This development is evident, too, even in the ways that religion itself is studied, as a sociocultural phenomenon, as possessing some conceivable evolutionary advantage, as rooted in the human nervous system, or being an a priori potential for numinous experience, and so on, that is, as something merely human, all-too-human, no longer as evidence of  supernatural, miraculous incursions into our mundane realm. TTSA’s metamaterials, regardless of the wonder and awe they might inspire, are no sacred relics, as should be acutely apparent in how they are acquired only for the sake of their potential technological exploitation and attendant profits.

 

 

 

 

Disclosure and Unacknowledged Nonhuman Intelligence

In his recent conversation with Bryce Zabel, M. J. Banias makes a telling analogy, between the moon landing whose anniversary is presently being marked and another hypothetical world media event, the announcement (@ 56″) that “humanity is not alone and there is some other intelligence and it’s active with us and it’s trying to engage with us in some way.”

At this point in the interview, Banias and Zabel are caught up in their conversation, and their enthusiasm gets the better of their reflective faculties. For, if there is a heartbreakingly unacknowledged fact about life on earth it is precisely that “humanity is not alone,” that there are other intelligences living here, active with us, which cannot help but interact if not engage with us.

As I have argued ad nauseum here and will continue to do so the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence both suffer from an anthropocentric hyperopia that overlooks the wildly varied forms of intelligent life with which homo sapiens shares the planet in a squinting search for ourselves offworld.

As is well-acknowledged by naturalists, many species are self-conscious, from elephants, to great apes, all the way to corvids and even ants. Moreover, these and other species exhibit both intelligence (even fruit flies and jumping spiders weigh and decide between alternative courses of action) and culture (whales and elephants, for example, can be shown to possess natural languages). The capacity for numeracy is evident in bees, and, most compellingly, increasingly so even in plants. How much more mindblowing is the possibility plants on earth exhibit a radically nonhuman consciousness than that some humanoid, technological race (species?) inhabits an impossibly distant exoplanet? And how much more urgent is the need to reflect on the implications, moral and material, of how we engage with the alien (nonhuman) forms of life around us (to wit), let alone what the character of that interaction entails for how we might treat extraterrestrial life if and when we discover it, or how it might treat us if it discovers us first?

What’s money got to do with it?

Over at UFO Conjectures, Rich Reynolds gets ye olde brain juices flowing, where he fires off a barrage of squibs at the oft-heard refrain that ufologists are “just in it for the money.” However well-taken his intended point, his rhetoric gets the better of him, when he claims, inspired by the Muse Hyperbole, that “No one makes or has ever made real money by exploiting the enigma to make big bucks…”

As long as his thesis concerns ufologists or journalists and writers who produce strictly ufological material, then, I think, there’s little to argue with. On the other hand, to claim that no one has profited off the UFO phenomenon (“the enigma”) will surely inspire a wry grin on Chris Carter‘s face and an urgent anxiety on the part of the producers of History‘s various UFO-related shows to conceal this fact from their overseers. If the arts can contribute billions of dollars to a nation’s GDP, it would be an interesting exercise to determine how much money UFO-themed books, films, television, and sundry commodities have generated in even only the United States since 1947.

But, then, a related and more provocative question concerns how monetization, the profit motive, the commodity form—in a word, capitalism—might be said to determine the social form of the phenomenon, i.e., how “the enigma” appears in the public sphere. Here, it’s possible only to sketch in a few offhand examples; a proper answer would demand a short, dense treatise that would give the editor of D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic a blinding migraine.

Reynolds points to, for example, “the prolific writer Nick Redfern” for whom “[money] is not his motivation for writing but a meager means of economic survival; his books just keeping his head above water.” I take it Reynolds sees Redfern’s very impressive output as an index of a somewhat impractical fascination (rather than a need, to keep his head above water) harnessed to a disciplined work ethic, i.e., despite his impressive labour and productivity, Redfern can hardly claim to have made a bundle on the UFO beat, which is all well-taken.

However, it’s no less true that as professional writer Redfern (like journalists Leslie Kean, Helene Cooper, or Ralph Blumenthal) has to pitch his articles and books and write them a certain way so that his publishers, in whatever media, will feel assured of sufficient clicks if not sales. His writing must be produced in a predetermined manner (German critical theorist Theodor Adorno would say “schematized”) ultimately out of his control for it to be accepted and published by those who own the means of (book) production and distribution, digital or otherwise. However meagre his wages, he still exchanges the product of his labour for money, an exchange that occurs under conditions not entirely of his choosing, but dictated by (what his publishers make of) the market.

Pasulka’s book, mentioned above, is another example. Diana Walsh Pasulka is a professional scholar, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. American Cosmic:  UFOs, religion, technology (Oxford University Press, 2019) addresses a germane topic, the religious sentiments the UFO phenomenon inspires in the otherwise worldly and secular in confluence with their (equally religious) fascination with technology. No less impressively, she brings to bear Martin Heidegger‘s thinking on the essence of technology.

Pasulka’s promising study, however, underwent a thorough editing. As the author remarks, “it got edited about, oh, I don’t know, a million times and a lot of stuff taken out.” Whatever was academic or scholarly is shorn away, diction, argument, analysis, critique, even a bibliography or works cited. So, instead of a solid, potentially groundbreaking work (that would have sold likely all of hundreds of copies to fellow scholars and university libraries), Oxford University Press (for cryin’ out loud) published a book with a popular appeal, a kind of travelogue that creates a story within which moments of watered-down learning and reflection appear as rest stops, about as interesting and as deeply explored, which attained a much more profound market penetration. In a word, Pasulka’s labour had to subject to be schematized as a condition of its publication and distribution.

What is true for Redfern and Pasulka is true for the producers of UFO documentaries, whether History’s Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation or Jeremy Corbell’s 2018 Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers, which are both shaped (schematized) by the demands of being produced, distributed, and consumed in a social space determined by the profit motive (regardless of their ultimate, unforeseeable profitability…). One could easily extend this analysis to the dominance of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis in UFO-themed entertainment…

Those obsessed with UFO fact (ufology), if they are motivated by the entrepreneurial spirit, like those behind To The Stars Academy, are very likely to have their dreams of untold lucre dashed. Those who aspire to be the next Chris Carter can at least harbour more realistic hopes. But, in either—and in every—case, where the producer (the writer) must sell their work to an owner of the means of production and distribution subject to the profit motive, that work must be revised and repackaged (schematized) to maximize sales as the very condition of its appearing in the world at all.

The old Protagorian con

In the comments on a particularly Gnostic-pessimistic post at UFO Conjectures, one interlocutor makes the following remark:

‘Creation’ is humanity’s ‘raison d’etre’ and is ultimately what distinguishes us from other sentient creatures, including other intelligent ‘higher primates’.

Ok, apes, crows & other species make tools &/or elaborate constructions to attract potential mates but there’s no orang-utan ‘Art’ or chimp ‘Science’ (beyond figuring out how best to access food).

My first impulse was to question this claim factually, with a quick internet search, which revealed, among other things, the arfulness of Amblyornis inornatus (Vogelkop Bowerbird). I was also reminded of a remembered passage from Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology describing a circular dance by, I think, chimpanzees. But then on some reflection I realized I’d fallen for the particularly insidious assumptions that underwrite the claim for humankind’s special, creative status.

The bias of the thinking is revealed by analogy with the comparison of “advanced” to “primitive” cultures, by and to the advantage of the former. As Jerome Rothenberg observes in the Pre-face to his groundbreaking assemblage, Technicians of the Sacred (1967):

“Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.”

In the same way, measure everything by the Sistine Chapel or Quantum Mechanics, and the world is full of uninspired, dim nonhuman animals, but once change the unit (or focal species) of measurement, and the world thrives with not only creativity and intelligence, but nonhuman powers and virtues, as well. The young William Butler Yeats mocks anthropocentric pretense with an eloquent simplicity in his poem “The Indian Upon God”.

There’s a reason philosophers in the Twentieth century coined the expression ‘ontotheology’: for the fateful confluence of Judeaochristianity (in which Man is created in God’s own image) and Platonism (and, with it, the inheritance of Hellenic thought) shores up an anthropocentrism that has reigned from then until now. It was most famously Protagoras of Abdera who is said to have stated that “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not,” usually rendered as “Man is the measure of all things.”

The identification of “creativity” with human creativity is part and parcel of the identification of “intelligence” with human intelligence that roots and orients the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis about the origin of UFOs. It is also, arguably, this anthropocentricism that justifies the ways of Man to himself in his exploitation of every being on (and, in the planning stages) off the earth as either raw material or commodity, a mode of behaviour that has resulted, most poetically, in mussels being cooked alive at low tide in the superheated waters off the coast of California.

Photograph: Jackie Sones

 

Banias, Adorno, and UFOs in the news

Among the few ufophiles I engage with, the one easiest to talk to is M. J. Banias. He, like me, is less concerned with the nature, truth or reality of UFOs than with the kind of thinking that goes into that question and with the people who do that thinking (hence the title to his latest book, The UFO People). We might, at times, fundamentally disagree, but at least we’re on the same page.

One thinker we both engage, as far as possible, is Theodor Adorno (if you’re at all acquainted with Adorno’s thought, you’ll know what I mean). Banias brings to bear Adorno’s notes on astrology as it appeared in the American press during his exile in the United States to the analogous case of UFOs in the news today, whether History, Fox, The New York Times, or The Washington Post.

Check out what he’s got to say on the matter. I’ve already registered some of my reservations in the comments. And if what he has to say piques your interest, subscribe to his YouTube channel:  he’s aiming at 1,000 subscribers before the end of June and, last I checked, he’s nearly there.

Anyone with the nerve (or gall) to bring Derrida and Adorno into the conversation about and around UFOs is worth a listen.

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A speculation on the making of a modern myth

Decades before our era of fake news and the bots who disseminate it, I once half-jokingly pitched a book idea to an old English teacher and friend. I imagined writing a tell-all exposé by a creative writer who had been drafted on graduation into a secret government project whose purpose was to produce cultural materials, novels, television and movie scripts, and so forth, with the intent of tweaking and guiding the culture at large. The UFO mythology, of course, played a central role. But recently having had the opportunity to view Corbell’s Bob Lazar:  Area 51 & Flying Saucers, it strikes me I may well have been beaten to the punch.

Corbell’s documentary omits some very telling details of Lazar’s story, but includes one I hadn’t known, that early in his tenure at Area 51, Lazar was shown a number of briefing documents concerning UFOs and their extraterrestrial pilots. To the cognoscenti, Lazar’s experience is not unique:  Bill Cooper and Bob Dean both tell similar stories of being given materials that deal with crashed saucers, recovered and back-engineered technology, and captured and autopsied ETs. What Lazar, Cooper, and Dean claim to have read seems pulled from the same filing cabinet as the MJ-12 documents. If we refuse to take these at face value, then we need to imagine their possible significance and purpose.

There are a number of potential uses. One not too out-of-this-world is as a kind of test. Given that since the postwar advent of the phenomenon roughly half the general population believes that “flying saucers are real”, it follows roughly half of military personnel will hold similar beliefs. Imagine a junior intelligence officer is up for promotion. You present them with materials like those shown to Lazar and ask them to prepare a brief for a superior. A candidate whose critical faculties fail to filter such material as highly questionable if not outright disinformation is surely unreliable. The all-too-credulous might even be tempted to leak the world-shattering information they’ve been shown, and, when they are, understandably, demoted or dismissed, they can point to their discharge as proof of their claims and start a new career as a ufological whistleblower….

An important inspiration for my unwritten novel was the speculations of William Burroughs’ lifelong experiments on how to destabilize and destroy the reigning control system of image and association. Since, I’ve read Frances Stonor Saunders on how during the Cold War the CIA sought to weaponize the arts and learned about the related, farther-reaching Operation Mockingbird. Robbie Graham has explored ways the cinematic presentation of flying saucers and ETs was possibly spun in similar ways. Given the persistence of reports of the kinds of documents Lazar claims to have read, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some version of the stable of writers I imagined actually exists.

This Gnostic-paranoid speculation concerning the manipulation if not outright fabrication of our collective imaginarium also brings to mind Jacques Vallée’s proposal that the UFO phenomenon itself might operate as a kind of control system, inspiring and guiding belief. If we combine these ideas, a compelling if somewhat giddy vision suggests itself,  that collective consciousness is a battlefield fought over by human and nonhuman players. In this context, the thought, whether Elon Musk’s or Nik Bostrom’s, that we might be living in a computer simulation appears a cheap rip off of The Matrix.

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“…the Aliens gave us modern technology…”–a note to The Promethean Lure

Despite my critique of a certain tendency in Jacques Vallée’s thinking about the place of the UFO phenomenon in human history, I do find his work consistently compelling and an endless source of inspiration, if only for my more creative work, on Orthoteny.

Synchronicity has recently tossed my way a tidbit relevant to my all-too-brief reflection on the Promethean aspect of the Extraterrestrial. Reading the latest installment of his Forbidden Science:  Volume Four:  Journals 1990-1999, The Spring Hill Chronicles, I found a pertinent entry, from Sunday 6 April 1997:

The point that irks me most in the ufology dogma is the absurd idea that the Aliens gave us modern technology:  the often-heard notion that the transistor derived from Roswell is met with ridicule in Silicon Valley. Not only did the work of Bell Labs begin well before July 1947, but German inventor Oskar Heil had demonstrated a field-effect transistor on a lab bench in Germany in the early thirties. Heil is listed as owner of British patent 439-457, filed in 1934…. As early as June 1904 a device called the “Telemobiloskop” had been demonstrated.

It would, however, be an error to let the facts obscure the truth. The “UFO dogmatist” might reply that Heil was in communication with extraterrestrials through the Vril Society, or that the Telemobiloskop, too, was a crumb thrown us by the inventors of the Phantom Airships of 1896/7. More seriously, though, is the rich suggestiveness of the Promethean ET that runs throughout “the ufology dogma”, spontaneously generating a mythological image for the complex notion that German philosopher Martin Heidegger termed “the essence of technology” and that plays an important role in the religious reception of the UFO as D. W. Pasulka has tried to show in her American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, and Technology.

 

An Alien Abduction & a Fairy Tale: “Is that clear enough?”–A Note

In Forbidden Science:  Volume Four:  Journals 1990-1999, The Spring Hill Chronicles, Jacques Vallée writes in the entry for 1 January 1996:

In one recent case an abductee reports seeing human arms and legs piled up like firewood in a corner of a dark room, lit by a blue glow. Ufologists take it at face value. To me the scene has a stunning mythopoetic connection to Germanic fairy tales where a hero spends the night in a haunted castle; little men force him to play bowling games as they knock down bones using human heads that keep dropping down the chimney. In the tale a horrible being reassembles itself out of the members that have appeared chaotically. Is that clear enough?

With Passport to Magonia (1969), Vallée began to probe the relation between modern UFO sightings and entity encounters with premodern narratives, myths, legends, tales, and chronicles of aerial phenomena and meetings with nonhuman intelligences, arguing, at times, that their similarities suggest something about the mystery behind the UFO phenomenon. His approach, in general, has been richer and more sophisticated than the approach summed up in the name von Däniken, though not always. His journal entry (above) is hardly a summation of his own positions, but it is representative of certain pitfalls the line of inquiry can fall into.

As I have argued on a number of occasions, it’s not only the ufologists who take things at face value (as if “face value” were a simple, obvious notion…). All other provisos aside, a preliminary question is exactly how are an alien abduction narrative and a folk tale equivalent kinds of narrative? Before comparing these stories one need get clear on the narrative codes that govern or governed their composition and reception. For example, anyone who takes “at face value” the Hebrews’ forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt and Jesus’ forty days and forty nights retreat before beginning his ministry is simply ignorant of the rhetoric or hermeneutics at work in Biblical narrative.

But even before engaging such substantial and necessary matters, a number of other problems come to mind. Taken “at face value”, assuming that the abduction narrative was retrieved by means of hypnosis, a more parsimonious explanation is that the abductee had been exposed to the fairy tale Vallée has in mind in his or her childhood and the forgotten (i.e., unconscious) content has resurfaced in surreal fashion during the hypnotic regression. Or, if one wants to indulge a more Jungian than Freudian approach, one might posit that the dreamlike memories conjured up under hypnosis and the imagery of the fairy tale both spring from the same mental source, the creative or collective unconscious.

But most tellingly is what’s revealed to be at work in Vallée’s own mind. The “Germanic fairy tale” is very likely the fourth in the Brothers Grimm’s collection, “Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen” (“The Tale of a Boy who Went Forth to Learn Fear”). In this tale,  there are no “little men” (that might count as analogues to the diminutive Greys presumably present in the abductee’s story), nor, strictly speaking,  does “a horrible being reassemble itself out of …members that have appeared chaotically”:  first one half, then another half of a man falls through the chimney; the two halves then reassemble themselves into a “hideous man.” Vallée has only dimly (mis)remembered the tale himself, fabulating a version as fictitious as the abductee’s hypnotically retrieved narrative in line with the point he desires both to perceive and make. Once we undertake the simplest philological labour, we see that the abductee’s story and the fairy tale as Vallée remembers it have next to nothing in common, other than, perhaps, certain psychological mechanisms that might be invoked to explain their respective creation.

Whatever what might finally be made of Vallée’s speculations concerning the sometimes very striking parallels between premodern and modern “UFO” narratives (as is the case with Faery and Alien Abductions), if his approach is to have more than a mythopoetic value (which I prize highly!), then a certain minimum of philological and hermeneutic reflection is called for. Is that clear enough?

 

 

 

The Promethean Lure

As Kevin Randle and others have remarked, recent U.S. Navy pilots’ encounters with UFOs are nothing we haven’t seen before. Since the Second World War, air force pilots have observed, pursued, and even fired on what appear to be aeroforms capable of instantaneously accelerating to hypersonic speeds, making impossible forty-five degree angle turns, and stopping, all performance features that outstrip the aircraft of the day. And then just as now it was speculated whether or not these aeroforms were domestic or foreign (not necessarily extraterrestrial) experimental aircraft. But beneath these analogues, a deeper pattern is discernible.

It’s an old chestnut of the Ancient Astronaut / Alien line of thinking that the culture heroes of world mythology, those deities that gifted humankind with fire (Prometheus) or writing (Thoth) for example, were in truth extraterrestrials leading homo sapiens down the path of technological development. A not unrelated story concerns the back-engineering of extraterrestrial technology recovered either from crashed saucers or intact ones secured through agreements with their pilots’ civilizations. On our own or under the guidance of ET advisors, the study of ET-tech has given us the transistor and fibre-optics (as Philip J. Corso contends in his 1998 book The Day After Roswell) and promises free-energy technology, and, with it, the advanced aeroform of the flying saucer, which, some believe, the American military or some break-away civilization has already developed.

A more circumspect version of such reflections was recently expressed by Dr Garry Nolan, who, thinking out loud, imagines the possibility that metamaterials left as physical traces of UFO sightings may be a gift, a kind of clue, so that their unusual characteristics might prompt us not only to develop ways to reproduce them but to imagine uses for them. The 2018 film UFO presents a similar scenario, where the mathematics needed to understand the ETs’ communications becomes increasingly complex, leading researchers along a line of mathematical and physical speculation toward the understanding of nature that enabled the ETs to overcome precisely the same threats to the survival of civilization we now face. In the same way such metamaterials function as hints to lines of inquiry, the aerial antics of the UFO become (in the words of Tyler Rogoway) a kind of “Holy Grail of aerospace engineering.”

Extraterrestrial technology becomes, then, either retro- or prospectively, a projection of next generation human technology. On the one (sociopolitical) hand, this projection is an expression of the ideology of the so-called advanced societies:  one haphazard inflection of human civilization imagines itself to be in line with a pattern of technological development characteristic of intelligent life universally, the kind of thinking that underwrites Maitreya Raël’s claim that his extraterrestrial teachers, the Elohim, are “25,000 years ahead” of us. On the other (more mythological) hand, the extraterrestrial symbolizes the alpha and omega, the arche and telos, of technological humanity: ET either gifts us technology or teaches us by means of teasing puzzles; more radically, in other speculations, ET interbreeds with us or biotechnologically “makes us in His own image” to raise us to its own level.

The Extra-Terrestrial, then, can be understood as an eminently mythological figure, “mythological” in the sense of making universal and necessary an historical contingency (reifying this moment of technological civilization) and, in a more compelling sense, an emblem of that reification, an idol embodying “the essence of technology”, simultaneously a transformation of the Promethean culture hero and a radical revision that remakes the mythic past in the image of now or what we thereby imagine tomorrow to be.

originsofman

The Message of the Medium

It wasn’t that long ago that those long intrigued by the UFO mystery were tempted to declare the phenomenon and its study (ufology) moribund if not downright dead in the water. Yet, today, they’re blogging on the edge of their seats and even, when their breath isn’t bated, whispering the word “Disclosure”. Their excitement has been resurrected by recent revelations in print and television (History’s series Unidentified) concerning apparent encounters  with classically super-performing aeroforms in 2014 and 2015 by Navy pilots in training maneuvers from Virginia to Florida off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. This about-face got me thinking.

As early as 1965, Jacques Vallée grasped that “The phenomenon under study is not the UFO…but the report written by the witness” (Anatomy of a Phenomenon, vii). However, a variation on this methodology, one adopted by John Keel (and many others) as recounted in his Operation Trojan Horse (1970), is the collection and collation of reports of witness reports from the news media. The example of Keel’s practice suggests the possibility that waves of interest in the phenomenon are not directly related to any patterns in the phenomenon itself but are mediated by patterns of reporting on the phenomenon in the media.

In a media environment governed in the final analysis by profit, as in the case of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets that have recently carried these sensational stories and op ed pieces on them, it is tempting to attribute this sudden, revitalized excitement not so much to new developments in the field (after all, the sightings recently on record bear all the hallmarks of pilot encounters from the late 1940s to today) but to patterns of demand and supply.

If we begin at the crest of a wave of interest, UFO stories will sell well. However, public interest can and will reach a saturation point and interest and sales will fall off. After a sufficient time, however, the potential interest in the phenomenon will again be ripe for stimulation, and reports appearing at that time will swell another wave of fascination and the market for stories, journalistic and fictional. Consciously or not, the media might be said to employ a kind of rotation method (as in agriculture) when it comes (at least) to the UFO topic because of the nature of their customers’ attention spans.

These recent dramatic encounters may well be nothing more (again) than, as astrophysicist Leon Golub opines, “bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, [or] neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight.” But, like those pilots spoofed by their new, unfamiliar instrumentation, those surfing this most recent swell of excited interest may, as well, be merely taken for a ride by the code running the media.

 

Addendum:  Since my first attempt at articulating the reflections above, Chris Rutkowski has made public his own, not unrelated, thoughts on this most recent media furor, worth a gander.

 

 

 

 

There are no repeats in space

Avi Loeb, the Harvard Professor of Astronomy is at it again. Professor Loeb is most famous of late for his conjectures that the interstellar object Oumuamua might be an alien spaceship. Most recently remarks he made at The Humans to Mars Summit (14-16 May 2019) concerning the value of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have stirred some interest.

I haven’t had the time to fast forward through the three days’ live streaming to find Professor Loeb’s talk, but the idea of his that caught the attention of at least two journalists (here and here) is that discovering extraterrestrial civilizations that have self-destructed, as ours threatens to do, might help us learn to avoid their fatal mistakes:  “The idea is we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.”

Where to begin?…

In the best of all possible worlds, Loeb and I would have an intellectual cage match on this subject. I have consistently (and with increasing impatience, admittedly) taken to task the assumptions that underwrite Loeb’s views and SETI in general, on the grounds that they are anthropocentric in identifying “intelligence” with human intelligence (an identification with fatal consequences for all those other intelligent life forms with which we share the earth) and, worse, that they reify one civilization’s vector of technical development, namely that of “the West”, as being natural to all imaginable anthropomorphically intelligent life. The Enlightenment is sometimes taken to task for unconsciously restricting the human to white, ruling-class males; SETI’s assumptions seem equally, if not more, perverse.

But Loeb’s statement quoted above reveals the vacuity of his thesis. We don’t need to discover another civilization that ended itself through war, nuclear or otherwise, or by fouling its own nest. We already understand that we need avoid even a “limited” nuclear war and we already monitor the habitability of our planet, with increasing scrutiny and anxiety. The only virtue of this aspect of xenoarchaeology would be to discover a civilization that succumbed to an internal threat of which we are unaware. But even letting SETI’s frankly ideological assumptions off the hook, even such a discovery would be empty, since civilizations are each determined at each moment by a set of conditions that are in each instance radically local (historical).

My argument here cuts too against those who believe we can learn from history. Such thinking makes of human societies a kind of natural phenomenon subject to transtemporal laws. But human societies are not “natural” in the way the behaviour of the electron is natural, but historical, and, as such, admit to being not known but only understood within the context of a constellation of temporally local and ephemeral determinants. In a word, and to say too much too quickly, human societies operate within the realm of freedom not (natural) necessity. This is not to say humans beings in the aggregate escape or otherwise stand above nature, but only that it is illegitimate to seek to know them the same way we seek knowledge of nonhuman nature.

Nor am I arguing ultimately against the curiosity that drives SETI. What I am relentlessly and mercilessly critical of are the zombie ideas that make of the human being, and our present iteration of civilization, exemplars of all imaginable intelligence throughout the universe.

A Short Take on Ryan Eslinger’s UFO

Most movies inspired by the UFO phenomenon have been and remain B-grade, generic science fiction or horror (not that such artefacts aren’t without their abyssal significance, either), but recently, at least in my media bubble, richer, more thoughtful films have appeared, among them some that have received publicity, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and others, less celebrated, that have slipped under the radar, namely Jason Stone’s At First Light and Ryan Eslinger’s UFO, which is understated, smart, and dramatically complex.

[I’m writing about Eslinger’s film from the point of view of someone who’s viewed it, so, if you haven’t and don’t want the whole plot revealed, read no further!]

The film begins with a UFO sighting over Cincinnati airport, inspired by the famous O’Hare International Airport sighting of 7 November 2006, which catches the attention of the film’s protagonist Derek (who witnessed a UFO as a small boy) and an FBI agent Franklin Ahls, who seems a one-man UFO investigations desk with the entire agency’s resources at his beck and call.  The plot is driven, at the narrative level, by Derek’s (primarily mathematical) investigation into the sighting and the social fall-out of his actions and Ahls’ parallel investigation and suppression of the event, while, thematically, by the question (in its many senses) “Are we alone?”.

Despite the impression left by the trailer, the plot is much more cerebral than cloak-and-dagger, dealing for the most part with Dereck’s efforts to decode the message from the film’s titular UFO that he discovers in recordings of air traffic control communications during the sighting. One of the most delightful moments in this narrative arc is Dereck’s debunking of an official debunking of the sighting, which identifies the observed object as a small drone:  the audience witnesses the process, diagrams, numbers and all, by which Dereck calculates the approximate diameter of an object “about the size of a dime held at arm’s length” hovering at about two hundred feet below that day’s cloud ceiling. The plot doesn’t have so much a heart as a brain, one cracking itself over the complex mathematics of the numerical message sent by the UFO’s pilots, the solution to which ultimately involves considerations drawn from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and physical constants of, e.g., hydrogen. This is a gambit as daring as satisfying, evoking as it does some of the real, hard problems of putative communications with a technically advanced, nonhuman species.

Mathematics and physics do not lend themselves to the run-of-the-mill UFO cover-up movie, frustrating viewers with an insatiable appetite for that same old same old. Eslinger’s script is both more daring and more complex than that, delving into Dereck’s character as a way into even more profound thematic depths. Derek’s obsessiveness and mathematical genius render him a bit of a sociopath, causing him to betray his friends and inspiring his wearily understanding mathematics professor Dr. Hendricks to compare him to Thomas Edison at his worst. By the end of the film, the attentive, reflective viewer will likely be struck by the manifold irony in Dereck’s wondering if “we are alone.” At least twice, through brief flashbacks, Dereck’s lonely, if not traumatic, boyhood is revealed: his mother refused to believe him when he told her that he had witnessed strange lights in the sky, and it is suggested he was the only child of a single parent whose lives were materially precarious. He is able to attend university only because his high intelligence secured him a prestigious scholarship, but his selfish single-mindedness alienates him from those around him. Little wonder someone so isolated should wonder about being alone in the universe.

But the real thematic pay off of the film comes at the end, which has mystified or disappointed some reviewers. Franklin Ahl’s investigation into this and other UFO sightings is driven by a growing anxiety about the fate of humanity. Invoking a certain strain of SETI speculation about different levels of technical civilization, at one point during a meeting with a panel of scientists, he wonders out loud if “the eerie silence” SETI has met with is not caused by all civilizations’ self-destructing as they approach the threshold ours is. If, however, the UFOs he is chasing are indeed spacecraft from distant civilizations, then these have solved the problems that threaten to snuff ours out and learning to communicate with them might win us access to this direly needed information. When Dereck does decode the aliens’ message, which reveals the location of their next appearance, he witnesses the UFO and is immediately taken into custody by Ahls. The agent reveals that the aliens have been communicating in this way for some time and in increasingly complex ways, presenting problems whose solution seems to be leading along a path of research and discovery that imaginably leads to that know-how that saved them from the self-destruction that threatens us. Ahls recruits Dereck, who learns that we “are not alone”, in the literal sense that the universe is indeed (perhaps) inhabited by other technological intelligences, but also, unconsciously, that he is not alone in his obsessions, that finally he has found a place in this world.

But such an emotional resolution would be cheap if larger stakes were not in play. The Fine Structure Constant plays an important role throughout the film, right from its very beginning. At one point, discussing the constant with two scientists, it is suggested that the constant may in fact be the same throughout space, but not time. That the constant might be variable proves important to possibly solving the much more complex communications received from the aliens, which, in turn, suggests, though this is never spoken by any character, that the aliens are not from a distant point in space, but in time, namely our own future. Dereck, then, is representative of today’s youth whose ingenuity is required to solve the questions that lead to solving the problems that threaten our future. But not only that:  that mathematicians make their breakthroughs only in their youth is a cliché invoked at least twice. However, when Dr. Hendricks gives him this spiel, he immediately contradicts her, supplying as many examples of older mathematicians who have made important contributions. Thus, the intelligence of all generations is presented as being up to the task of facing down the world-threatening problems that loom before us. None of us are “alone” in this world or what threatens it. Young, old(er), and even future generations have a stake in the game and a role to play.

Eslinger’s is a sly sleeper of a film because of how, like Villeneuve’s Arrival, it deploys the UFO as a material, weaving it together with emotional and social matters to address larger but no less related concerns. The result is, from this point of view, an original, refreshingly pleasant and emotionally satisfying movie. Within the larger context of the UFO phenomenon, however, it doesn’t quite escape one of the central and most compelling suppositions in the reception of the phenomenon, that our technical ingenuity, which got us into this perhaps suicidal mess, will be what gets us out. It does, nevertheless, leave one with a sense of hope.

Who Knows

Håkan Blomqvist at his UFO Archives blog asks a provocative question:  “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?” Blomqvist poses his question from within an esotericism for which Contactees such as George Adamski play a central role, so the question is easily extended to the matter of UFOs and ufology in general:  “How to introduce UFOs as a legitimate object of research to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”

On the one hand, esotericism and ufology are topics for serious, scholarly research, only as cultural or social phenomena. Moreover, from the point of view of religious studies scholars, the various beliefs about UFOs and their pilots and the communities that form around these beliefs are, methodologically, treated as tenable worldviews. That is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, scholars can take UFOs seriously as long as they bracket the question of their reality. On the other hand, there are those both within and without the natural scientific institutions who are driven or press to have the question of “UFO reality” taken seriously, either as a topic of research in its own right or as a political / social concern, as in the case of those working toward “Disclosure”.

Since the earliest days of the modern era of ufology inaugurated by Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting there have been investigators who probed the phenomenon with more than a journalist’s tools:  one thinks of Aimé Michel, Jacques Vallée, J. Allen Hynek, James McDonald, Stanton Friedman, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter Sturrock, among others, and even professionally journalistic ufologists, most famously John Keel, have contributed. James McDonald is an important case in point:  his public interest in UFOs sullied his reputation as a senior physicist at the Institute for Atmospheric Physics and professor in the Department of Meteorology, University of Arizona, Tucson. Because of the stigma attached to the topic of UFOs, many natural scientists interested in the subject pursue their research sub rosa, constituting what J. Allen Hynek famously called “The Invisible College”.

Not all curious scientists are as tactful as their peers in the Invisible College, however. Some dare submit their theories and hypotheses to the scrutiny of their peers, as members of, e.g., the Society for Scientific Exploration do. There is, at the same time (usually related to the perceived amount of public interest in UFOs), a media phenomenon that shadows these more socially marginal efforts, purporting to present “findings” and “proof” while in fact being at best infotainment. The most recent iteration is To the Stars Academy’s limited series Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, which promises, among other things, to

produce tangible evidence to build the most indisputable case for the existence and threat of UFOs ever assembled [and] reveal newly authenticated evidence and footage, interviews from eyewitnesses and former military personnel who have never spoken out before and extensive breakthroughs in understanding the technology behind these unknown phenomena in our skies.

Keith Basterfield at the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena blog sums up well the likely response of more conventional or institutionally-trained researchers: “While I, in general, support the work being undertaken by the TTSA [To The Stars Academy], the apparent direction for us to learn of the analysis results is hardly a scientific one—simply entertainment.” At the end of the day, the only scientific difference between History’s new series and the numberless YouTube videos of scientifiques bruts sharing their anti-gravity discoveries is production values.

But underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.

A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.

Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.

Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.

Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.

 

 

 

 

 

Finger on tha GHz pulse

At the beginning of the year, reflecting on the sociopolitics of the UFO, I speculated that

Given the plethora of data gathered by Google, Facebook, et al., a sufficiently canny graduate student with a research grant should be able to very precisely delimit various communities according to sets of specific criteria, a kind of “digital sociology” analogous to the digital humanities. Given the possibility (if not actuality—and here my own ignorance of contemporary methods of sociological research is all too painfully apparent) of such a digital sociology (the term is actually used with a different sense in the discipline itself), it’s not too difficult to imagine how such a serious sociological investigation would seek to characterize the social formations of various UFO groups, e.g., research groups, formal and informal; communities, corporeal and virtual, etc. The advantage of such a methodology is its precision. Not only can social groups be characterized by their predilections, but by more materialist considerations, such as class, gender, and race.

Today I read at Nature an article titled “Facebook gives social scientists unprecedented access to its user data”…

so that they can investigate how social media platforms influence elections and alter democracies….The scientists will have access to reams of Facebook data such as the URLs that users have shared and demographic information including gender and approximate age.

I’m not persuaded I’m possessed of any precognitive abilities, but it is pleasant to sometimes have one’s intuitions confirmed…

 

normal-vs-hyper

Skunkworks on “The ‘X’ Zone”

Rob McConnell has been kind enough to invite me to speak with him on “The ‘X’ Zone”.

We’ll be riding my ufological hobby horses on “The ‘X’ Zone” radio show Monday 8 April 20h00-21h00 EST, and again on “The ‘X’ Zone” TV Show Tuesday 9 April 11h00 EST. That, at least, is the plan.

Once the shows are recorded and uploaded, I’ll link them here at Skunkworks.

Now, where can a man get a set of digital earphones like Orson’s sporting?…

Skunkworks on Kevin Randle’s “A Different Perspective”

I had the honour and pleasure to be a guest on Kevin Randle’s podcast “A Different Perspective”.

We discussed all the things wrong with History’s Project Blue Book, the uncanny parallels between the Phantom Airship flap of 1896/7 and the post-1947 modern era, all that’s spontaneously literary about the history of UFOs, and the enduring, “hard kernel” of the mystery.

You can hear it all here.

Ufology’s Steadystate

Working randomly toward another review for Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf, I came across the following passage from Edward J. Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956):  the

“will to see” [UFOs] may have deeper roots, almost religious implications, for some people. Consciously or unconsciously, they want UFOs to be real and to come from outer space. These individuals, frightened perhaps by threats of atomic destruction, or less fears—who knows what—act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth. Instead, they seek salvation from outer space, on the forlorn premise that flying saucer men, by their very existence, are wiser and more advanced than we. Such people may reason that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival. (17)

Here, in a nutshell (as it were) Ruppelt plainly states many of the assumptions that guide beliefs about UFOs and extraterrestrials to this very day.

D. W. Pasulka’s recent American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) owes much of the splash it has made to her treating the fascination for the advanced technology the UFO-as-extraterrestrial-spacecraft represents as a religious phenomenon, yet, here, Ruppelt lays bare the “almost religious implications” the idea has. (And he is hardly the last:  Festinger et al. published their classic study of a flying saucer cult When Prophecy Fails the same year as Ruppelt’s no-less-classic Report, Jung published the first, German edition of his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies in 1958, and anthologies of articles exploring the religious dimension of UFOs and contact with their pilots have appeared since (e.g., The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis, 1995), UFO Religions (ed. Christopher Partridge, 2003), and Alien Worlds:  Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact (ed. Diana G. Tumminia, 2007)).

A famous (or infamous) intersection of American esoteric religious tendencies, the flying saucer, and anxiety over “threats of atomic destruction” are the Space Brothers of the Contactees. But Ruppelt’s point seems more complex. The Space Brothers, “wiser and more advanced than we”, land to warn us of the unknown dangers of atomic energy and weapons, yes. But, it is “by their very existence” that they “are wiser and more advanced than we” are. Here, he articulates a too-often unspoken assumption that “social and technical advancement” go hand in hand, a questionable thesis, as I’ve argued.

Even if we disentangle wisdom from technical ingenuity, Ruppelt observes a further belief, used today to justify the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and hopes that Disclosure will liberate world changing technologies, namely that “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival.” SETI researchers, like all who believe UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, project that trajectory of historical accidents that lead to the “advanced societies” of the earth onto the evolutionary vector of all life in the universe, as if all life universally follows a path from simplicity to complexity to human-like intelligence that as it grows in complexity necessarily develops a technology whose own development is always the same. That the hubristic anthropocentrism of this assumption persists unnoticed and unquestioned among so many of both casual and more dedicated or serious believers in extraterrestrial intelligence never ceases to appall me.

More gravely is how the UFO believers Ruppelt describes “act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth”, a sentiment echoed by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words twenty years after Ruppelt’s  (quoted by Pasulka to end her book):  “Only a god can save us.” Not twenty years after Heidegger’s words were finally published, Jacques Vallée in the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991) remarks the same situation and despairing response:

…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.

Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.

But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems:  those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)

The ironies of this despair are manifold. On the one hand, it is believed that technology alone can solve the problems its development has led to. On the other hand, these technological answers are not forthcoming from our technology. In either case, as Vallée worries, the desperate and credulous are subject to being manipulated by their belief that “only a god [or “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel”] can save us.”

What should be no less concerning for those interested in such matters is how these ideas Ruppelt describes over six decades ago persist in governing if not grounding what we imagine and think UFOs—and, more importantly, ourselves—to be.

 

“Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth”

I’ve argued often here that imagining advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is a mere projection of one more or less accidental cultural formation of one species on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world of homo sapiens.

Now, James Tour, a synthetic chemist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, publishes an open letter making a case he summarizes as follows:

We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense.

Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.

Tour’s argument touches on not only exobiology, but SETI, and so, by extension, ufology and the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), let alone the Neodarwinist consensus. Our inability to reasonably and confidently posit how life arises from nonliving matter on earth surely alters at the very least airy speculations involving the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox, let alone the persuasiveness of the ETH.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because we can’t formulate exactly how life arose on earth that it hasn’t occurred elsewhere under different conditions or in different forms, which would be merely another tenuous generalization from our own situation and current state of our knowledge. Nonetheless, Tour’s argument surely reveals the ignorance and hubris that underwrites the widespread belief in the ETH (let alone Disclosure (to say nothing, here, of Neodarwinism)), exposing, in turn, how it is rooted not so much in science or reason but in ideology, psychology, and imagination.

Most pointedly, Tour’s article might serve to sensitize us to the mind-boggling singularity, precarity, and preciousness of life—all life—already existing here, on earth, moving us to attend to it and its preservation, such biophilia having always been at work in its own surreal, dialectical way in our rumours about the UFOs and their pilots and, indeed, in the messages they have communicated to us.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about History’s Project Blue Book

As he wraps up his bracingly well-informed commentary on the season finale of History’s Project Blue Book, Kevin Randle remarks the vocal loathing some ufophiles have expressed for the series, confessing that he doesn’t “understand their hostility. Project Blue Book is not a documentary but a drama that has a historical background and a loose, very loose, interpretation of some of the sightings that are found in the Blue Book files.” For my part, I’ve made clear I find the series a lost opportunity, either to accurately represent (if dramatize) the story of Project Bluebook, which if done well would surely be engaging enough (if UFOs have any real and enduring mystery), or to create a radically novel twist on the mythology if not the phenomenon, whose merits could aspire to rank (as the show’s promotional material promises) with those of The X-Files. And, however much, as Randle cannily points out, History’s Project Blue Book is an overt fiction while the mainstay of many UFO websites and YouTube channels is to “put up UFO information that is totally bogus with no disclaimers whatsoever,” there are good grounds to be critical of how the series depicts the phenomenon, which, on closer inspection, entail even more curious and grave implications.

Randle is perhaps a little too sanguine about the solidity of the line that divides fact from fiction. As Robbie Graham and D. W. Pasulka have both recently argued, the fictional, televisual representation of the phenomenon insinuates itself in the memory in such a way that the fictional images replace factual reality. Though I find their arguments less than persuasive, it is the case that for “the general public” whose curiosity is not as invested as that of the researcher’s such a confusion arguably obtains. A mainstay example in discussions about false memories is an experiment

wherein participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with an impossible character (e.g., Bugs Bunny). Again, relative to controls, the ad increased confidence that they personally had shaken hands with the impossible character as a child at a Disney resort.

It is precisely through the lack of interest in a subject matter that errors and confusions of this sort filter in. More seriously, though, how events are represented is no small matter for concern. The resistance to the Vietnam War has been attributed in part to how footage of its violence appeared in an unprecedented way on national television. The lesson learned from the influence of this relatively new medium led to such a tightly-controlled, sanitized spin on reporting the First Gulf War that it inspired French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to pen several articles collected in a hyperbolically titled volume The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). Such anxious considerations are now de rigueur in the age of social media and their volatile, political exploitation.

While Randle is nonplussed over the misrepresentation of the phenomenon, he has expressed in a number of posts reviewing the series, as a veteran and so as someone who knows, his dissatisfaction with how “military customs and courtesies” and procedures are mishandled. What goes unremarked, however, both by Randle and critics of the series, are the intertwined threads of experimentation on military personnel and what Donald Keyhoe called “the flying saucer conspiracy”, official secrecy around and the dispersal of a misinformation screen about the phenomenon. Both themes are arguably more serious in their implications than the question as to whether “the flying saucers are real.”

To take up the latter topic first: it is perhaps sychronicitious that the CIA and the flying saucer both make their respective official appearances in 1947. Since, the American national security state has only grown (some would say “metastasized”). By 1964, Wise and Ross coin the term “the invisible government,” an idea since expanded if not always refined into “the shadow government” and most recently “the deep state.” Parallel to and sometimes twisted into such official state secrecy are accusations of an official cover-up of what military and government officials know to be true about the UFO, beginning with Keyhoe’s books in the 1950s and becoming especially gnarled and knotted in the 1980s and 90s with the appearance of the MJ-12 documents and the confluence of ufology with New World Order conspiracism, most notably in Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse (1991). One might say the relation was made canonical, for the ufophilic at least, by Richard Dolan in his two-volume study UFOs and the National Security State 1941-1973 and 1973-1991, published in 2002 and 2009 respectively, and officially certified with the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure at the National Press Club in April, 2013.

That the conspiracist aspect of the series is passed over in silence in 2019 is itself remarkable. First, this silence is an index of how normalized, how unremarkable, the very idea has become, not only for the ufophilic (long aware of the idea) but for the general public, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and 9/11. Second, the unconscious acceptance of the motif is curious at a time when conspiracism has returned with a vengeance in the form of the Q Anon conspiracy theory. Credence in the “theory” has only grown and spread since its appearance, with vocal supporters making themselves visible at Trump rallies. Others have committed crimes inspired by Q’s “drops.” Since, the theory has infiltrated the EU and is a source of misinformation and weapon for creating dissent in its populist-beset democracies. The series repeats and so reinforces the idea of a not necessarily benevolent “deep state”, echoing sentiments with the potential to inspire grave actions outside its merely dramatic, fictional world

An even graver motif in the series is that concerning human experimentation, for the moment at least, on military personnel. In Episode 4, “Operation Paperclip”, a hapless if resisting test pilot is strapped into the cockpit of a flying saucer prototype developed by Werner von Braun, which promptly disappears, taking the pilot to who-knows-where or when. In Episode 9, “War Games”, soldiers are unknowingly exposed to a chemical agent that causes irrational violence among them, and it is revealed that Generals Valentine and Harding have subjected pilots who’ve encountered Foo Fighters or UFOs to a kind of psychic driving procedure that echoes the infamous MK-Ultra program. This latter episode, especially, echoes the real-world cases where American military personnel have been exposed to chemical agents and psychoactive drugs. The public awareness of such practices underwrote anxieties about Gulf War Syndrome, conspiracy theories about Timothy McVeigh, and a central motif of The X-Files.

Experimentation on unwitting or unwilling human subjects touches on something essential to modernity, the perversion of rationality to identity thinking and instrumental reason. This latter is characteristic of both technology and capitalism, for whom the world is reduced to a warehouse of resources for exploitation and profit. Such a reduction is especially egregious in the case of living systems and organisms. Most immediately, such thinking is an important cause of the environmental crisis. In the case of human beings, if not nonhuman animals, instrumental thinking is essentially immoral, as it treats others as means rather than ends in themselves. When the Hynek and Quinn characters meet von Braun in Episode 4, they do not hesitate to openly express their disgust, an ironic reaction for viewers aware of Nazi human experimentation (among other atrocities, e.g., using the remains of concentration camp victims as raw materials) who can connect these scenes to the motif of human experimentation that has run through the series from almost its beginning if not to the very character of capitalist-technological society at large.

Critics of how History’s Project Blue Book depicts the history of the phenomenon have more warrant for their dissatisfaction than a mere judgement of taste, as its dramatizations potentially become the history of the UFO for the casually (un)concerned viewer and, worse, to my mind, reinforce clichés about the phenomenon that strip it of its real, unnerving mystery and keep it from being taken seriously. More curiously though is the way its reception reveals what its viewers and critics if not society at large take for granted, namely a byzantine, uncontrollable, and potentially malevolent national security apparatus and, worse, a blasé acceptance of the reduction of everything to a means to an end as business as usual.

 

 

 

 

Synchronicitious Confirmation

If the UFO is a mandala (as Jung proposed) then by synchronicity (again) I’ve come full circle.

Though I’d been fascinated by the ufological as a boy, that interest faded sometime before high school. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that, like Saul on the road to Damascus, I was struck by my own private revelation of the phenomenon’s meaningfulness. At the time, alien abductions were in the air, or at least on the airwaves. Many if not most of the abductees were women, and their stories were retrieved for the most part by means of hypnotic regression. By that time, I’d read enough Freud to guess that what these women recalled was as much a kind of manifest dream material as memory, and, as a dream, their stories must be expressions of certain desires or fears. This insight dovetailed into other matters being mulled by the zeitgeist at the time, the Human Genome Project, cloning, and developments in reproductive technology, such as In Vitro Fertilization. It seemed clear at that moment that alien abductee narratives were surreal expressions whose latent content was the understandable concern women might suffer whose bodies were the subject of such probing investigations and manipulations. What struck me in a flash with this understanding was how the infinite stories about UFOs and their ET pilots were a kind of collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of technological civilization in general, an idea I articulated a few years later just before one of the last End Times dates, the turn of the Millennium, in the following way:

The present stands within the horizon of the death of God, understood as the domination of the assumption of the immanence of the world and the consequent disappearance of the meta-physical, the super-natural, and the supersensuous (at least overtly) or their fall into the merely paranormal. The paranormal or paraphysical is that realm of nature yet to be understood (and so ultimately controlled) by science. This assumption that science will continue along the path of discovery, knowledge, and power naturalizes or reifies science and technology. When our science and technology poison the biosphere, split the atom to release potentially species-suicidal energies and manipulate the genetic code of living organisms, humanity has taken upon itself powers and potentialities hitherto exclusively the domain of superhuman deities. That science and technology, whose worldview determines how things are, brings us to an unprecedented impasse demands they must in some way be transcended (i.e., survived). The flying saucer appears within this horizon as a symbol of just such transcendence, promising that precisely the causes of our quandary will be our means of salvation.

By chance, meaningful or otherwise, following up on the reading around conspiracy theories I did for my conversation with M. J. Banias and the post clarifying and expanding on its ideas, I came to the following passage in Peter Knight’s Conspiracy Culture: from Kennedy to the X-Files (2000) uncannily setting forth those same ideas that had caught me up in that blinding vision of what the UFO mythology illuminates:

…the prevalence of alien abduction stories which feature invasive gynecological procedures speaks to concerns about rapidly changing reproductive technologies, in a decade whose political terrain has been scarred by battles over abortion, and fertility treatments such as surrogacy and cloning….alien abduction narratives in the 1990s express fears about medical science’s invasion of the body as the source of danger. It comes as little surprise, moreover, that the most frequent visitor, the so-called small gray alien, is typically represented in both personal accounts and Hollywood film as a creature with a disproportionately large head, huge enigmatic eyes, a tiny body and delicate hands. It forms an icon which recalls pictures of fetuses in the womb, a striking and uncanny image of the “alien within” that has only become available through new imaging technology in the last quarter century. The conspiracy-inflected dramas of alien experimentation thus say less about the particular makeup of the individuals telling the stories than they do about a society in which people’s (and especially women’s) relationships to their own body is so often mediated through technical expertise, be it medical, judicial, or ethical. (171-2)

 

Viewing the Latest Café Obscura in the Lounge of the Grand Hotel Abyss

M J Banias and A M Gittlitz carry on a wide-ranging and often quite acute conversation orbiting capitalism, Marxism, and things ufological on Banias’s weekly webcast, Café Obscura.

More rewarding than reading my offhand responses below, go, watch it, now.

Three important takeaways for me are:

First, how difficult it is to extract such discussions from anthropocentric reflexes. On one hand is the unwarranted assumption that any visiting extraterrestrial Other would immediately perceive homo sapiens as their complementary Other:  as I pointed out criticizing Schetsche’s and Anton’s recent book on exosociology, that assumption was overturned in even such a low-grade science fiction as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the extraterrestrial Other completely ignores the human civilization sprawled over the surface of the earth. On another hand is the more urgent and radical relation Herbert Marcuse remarked between the exploitation of other human beings and that of nonhuman nature, the two being essentially identical, such that the liberation of the one entails the liberation of the other.

Second, the very refreshing allusion to Charles Medede’s article How Capitalism Can Explain Why an Encounter with Aliens Is Highly Unlikely that outlines how capitalism is both the result of a very local and highly contingent historical development and the very condition of the kind of technological civilization we inhabit and imagine extraterrestrials to possess, too. The persistently unconscious projection of an accidental time and place in human history onto all intelligent life in the universe needs to be vigilantly called out in every instance.

Finally, A M Gittlitz’s constant reiteration of the truth that arguably drove the researches of the Frankfurt School, that, since material scarcity is economically unwarranted, its persistence must be due to other factors (for the Marxist, social ones). Gittlitz is especially insightful when he puts his finger on the fact that any suppressed free energy technology would be immediately monopolized upon its being disclosed, regardless of its human or extraterrestrial origins. That such utopian technologies would emerge spontaneously governed by the capitalist order in this way seems lost on proponents of disclosure such as James Gilliland and Foster Gamble. What’s very compelling is how the belief in and drive to reveal suppressed technologies implies a cognitive dissonance in the believers in disclosure. Gilliland, Gamble, et al. tend to be politically reactionary, in Gamble’s case, vaguely libertarian. However, the general distribution of the technologies they believe suppressed would undermine the economic base that supports capitalist social relations. In this way, those pressing for disclosure are bourgeois reactionaries dreaming of a socialist utopia!

 

A Lone Voice in the Wilderness No More!

It’s been a morning rich in synchronicities.

I was working on a forthcoming review of D W Pasulka’s American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, and Technology, wherein I had bookmarked the section concerning synchronicities and religion, as I had planned to integrate some of her reflections in my previous post. I had already read (synchronicitiously!) during my morning coffee-and-surf session an article about synchronicities and “information-ontology” (an article that calls for a response in itself!) that remarked Pasulka’s reflections, and my Facebook feed served up an article critical of the upcoming Peterson / Zizek debate, which, in turn, linked me to How Capitalism Can Explain Why an Encounter with Aliens Is Highly Unlikely by Charles Tonderai Mudede.

Anyone familiar with Skunkworks will know a long-standing and oft-repeated thesis of mine is that the thought of technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is merely an anthropocentric projection of one civilization on earth whose appearance has more to do with a tenuous thread of accidents than the triumphal march of a necessary (let alone a universal) Progress. And though I’ve been making this argument in various media since the mid-Nineties, never had I heard an echo (never mind glimpsed an affirmative nod) until I read Mudede’s article.

Mudede’s argument is similar to mine:  technoscientic civilization as is familiar to those of us living in the so-called “advanced” societies is the result not of some transhistorical cultural necessity but is the result of cultural and even climactic accidents, e.g., the advent of capitalism in the Sixteenth century or that of the Holocene whose temperate climate allowed for the development of agriculture and settled society. Mudede’s account has the added virtue of weaving Capitalism into that history of contingencies that lead to the present precarious moment of modernity. Interested parties will read (if they have not already read) his article, linked above.

My most serious disagreement with Mudede is that the question “Why should aliens be technologically advanced?” “has never been properly considered”!

Sighting Report

Friday 1 March 2019 I was a passenger on WestJet flight WS 439 flying from Toronto, Ontario to Edmonton, Alberta, seated in the first row in the window seat on the left side of the aircraft, from which I could look south out over Lake Superiour. I saw a bright, vaguely oval luminosity, shafts of blue-white light extending from its top and bottom. It varied in colour from light blue to white to yellow. Its solidity was ghostly, sometimes translucent, sometimes disappearing altogether, and, at its brightest, quite solid and well-defined. Its brightness was such as to leave an afterimage. Its flight paralleled the plane’s. At all times, it seemed just behind or below the light cloud cover over the lake. The entire sighting lasted at least thirty minutes.

It was, of course, either a reflection of the sun on that cloud cover or on the lake ice, but that was difficult to determine. Though I knew damned well what I was observing, it was a striking sight, and it didn’t take much imagination to see a UFO. Indeed, at times I was almost able to convince myself I wasn’t seeing a sundog or reflection from the lake ice, especially when that oval was at its brightest and most defined. Though I’ll admit a certain disappointment at not witnessing an intelligently-controlled, structured craft, it was interesting to imagine my way into the perceptions of someone less familiar with atmospheric phenomena or who “believes in UFOs.”

But I have a—I admit, semiarticulate—feeling there’s more to this experience than the opportunity to observe a beautiful, chance atmospheric phenomenon and to better understand some UFO witnesses, though.

On the one hand, my experience shares a feature with a certain class of sighting reports in that it was personal. While the most scientifically-compelling sightings involve multiple witnesses (and, ideally, measuring instruments), an equally curious category sees only some of several potential witnesses actually perceiving the anomaly, whether a UFO or other apparition, such as, most famously, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The individuality of my sighting is manifold. It is, first, spatiotemporally unique: I am unsure, but it’s not certain that other passengers on the same side of the aircraft would have seen the same thing, if anything at all, given sundogs or similar reflections depend on a geometry that relates the light source, the reflected rays, and the observer in a quite specific relation. Second, that I identified what I saw as a sundog or a reflection from the lake ice is unique to my education and my cultural context: that sundogs are explained as peculiar reflections from ice-crystals in the atmosphere depends on a sophisticated degree of meteorological and optical knowledge that must first be worked out then consequently passed down to subsequent generations.

Most importantly, however, is the way what I saw was personally significant, which brings my experience even closer to that of a believer. As someone interested in the UFO both in terms of its mysterious nature and psychosocial effect, witnessing so striking an example of a classically-mistaken meteorological phenomenon is informative in a way it wouldn’t be to someone either uninterested in UFOs or dismissive of them. For those picked out by the phenomenon to be witnesses, the effect can range from a lifelong “itch” to understand just what in fact was observed to a lifechanging experience that upends one’s settled understanding of what is real and the nature of that reality. In the most extreme cases, one is so utterly changed as to become a latter-day contactee, in the manner of Adamski, Fry, or Angelucci.

On the other hand is the nature of my report itself. What has been assumed throughout this discussion is the sincerity of my report. What Jacques Vallee and J Allen Hynek grasped, if not fully, is that in the first instance the ufologist works with sighting reports. Sociologists have already pried apart the process that leads from the sighting to the report, but what is less appreciated is just what this textual basis of ufology implies. Folklorists, such as Thomas Bullard, have studied the analogues between abduction reports and other narratives in both the European and American traditions. Indeed, the parallels between alien abductions, Faery encounters, shamanic initiations, Near Death Experiences, vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other such narratives have been a longstanding and increasingly attended dimension of the UFO phenomenon.

Fundamentally, however, over time, the sighting report has become a genre, a type of narrative, whose veracity and reference (truth) are framed and underwritten by the conventions of verisimilitude and the rhetoric (believability) of the genre. In this regard, ufology is a branch of literary studies, not because the varieties of its linguistic expression are fictional but because they are rhetorical and subject to a linguistic-typological analysis, or poetics. Sighting reports are written and read according to certain conventions, none of which have anything essentially to do with the reality or nature of what is being reported. The reader of a—my—sighting report, then, is in a situation not unlike the one I purportedly found myself in looking out that airplane window:  something is (read) seen, but its (truth) nature depends on the eye of the (reader) beholder.

Sun_dog_-_wea00148

Weaver Twining Curtain: you can’t make this stuff up

Working on a forthcoming review of David G. Robertson’s UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age (2016), I’m reading Mark Pilkington’s Mirage Men (2010), an important source for Robertson’s history of the phenomenon.

On the pages concerning the Roswell crash, one reads, first, in a passage from the famous FBI memo of 8 July 1947, that:  “Major Curtain further advised that the object found resembles a high altitude weather balloon…” (39).

Pilkington then draws our attention to USAF General Nathan Twining’s memo of 23 September 1947, to the effect that the USAF lacked “physical evidence in the shape of crash recovered exhibits…” (40).

Finally, there’s reference to the USAF’s official version of events The Roswell Report:  Fact Versus Fiction in the New Mexico Desert (1995), whose author is retired USAF Colonel Richard Weaver.

What must strike someone with a literary mind or training is how telling all these names are in the way they evoke textuality (Curtain, Twining, Weaver). One of the delights of reading the UFO myth is just how patterns of this sort present themselves, as if the myth itself were being written in a manner as self-reflexive as Homer’s Iliad or Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Here, the very names wink at us, suggesting an unsettling fabrication of the real itself….

“What we have here is a failure of imagination….”

Sometimes, like Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures, I roll my eyes over the ufological, which seems to perennially re-invent the wheel, only to spin it in the same, well-worn rut.

Paul Seaburn at Mysterious Universe informs us of a new book Die Gesellschaft der Außerirdischen: Einführung in Die Exosoziologie (The Society of Extraterrestrials:  Introduction to Exosociology) by scholars Michael Schetsche and his research assistant Andreas Anton at the Institute for Sociology of the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, Germany.  Schetsche and Anton essay three scenarios of human contact with an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization:  remote (via some medium of communication), indirect (through the discovery of an artifact of undeniable alien manufacture), or direct (in the form of a piloted or unpiloted alien spaceship). The first scenario is the goal of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI); the second and third are believed by some to have already happened, not only by the adherents of Exopolitics and the Disclosure movement but even (it would seem) by religious studies scholar D.W. Pasulka in her American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, wherein an inexplicably “alien” artifact plays an important role. At any rate, Schetsche and Anton contend that an instance of alien technology could pose a material threat (imagine small children playing with a hand grenade) or inspire conflict between nations eager to secure and exploit what they can learn from it. The third scenario is compared to the contact with and colonizations of the Americas and Africa by technologically superior Europeans; even if the extraterrestrials don’t conquer or colonize the earth, the social repercussions of such contact might incite social chaos. Says Schetsche, “Even if people do not kill each other, direct contact can destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries.”

It’s getting to be a tiresome exercise explaining just how dreary and somnambulent such speculations are. In general, they develop a deeply questionable anthropocentrism that merely projects features of human society on to imagined extraterrestrial societies. Aside from perversely restricting “intelligence” to the Promethean, technoscientific version characteristic of one chance vector of one part of human history, it assumes an immediate recognition between Us and Them. Even the writers of Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home had more imagination, probing the possibility that intelligent life on and off the earth is not restricted to only those “made in God’s own image.”

The second scenario, the discovery of an alien artifact, is, by extension, no less problematic. First, it is assumed we could in fact recognize an alien artifact as such. The recent controversy over the possible artificial, extraterrestrial origins of ‘Oumuamua among institutional researchers or the longstanding if less respectable speculations that one or more moons in the solar system (including the Earth’s) may be artificial illustrate the problem. More problematically, any piece of technology sufficiently within our own relatively primitive, earthbound purview would be unlikely to belong to a spacefaring civilization, unless technology-as-such is fairly uniform throughout the universe and the discovery of warpdrive is right around the corner, or we have already back engineered the propulsion systems of crashed flying saucers or been taught their principles and construction by their manufacturers as part of an agreement, Faustian or otherwise, an arrangement within the parameters of Schetsche’s and Anton’s speculations but not likely one they would ascribe to.

The third scenario is also all-too-recognizable among the cognoscenti. Offhand I can’t recall the earliest instance of Europeans-meet-the-Native-Americans analogy, but the prediction that direct contact would “destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries” has a history that runs from the earliest, anxious investigations into the phenomenon by the United States Air Force to the most recent “After Disclosure” writings of Richard Dolan. It is curious that sociologists don’t explore the fact that for decades more than half of people in the developed world already believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial, intelligent life and its either having already contacted us or the possibility of such contact. Indeed, the default understanding of ‘UFO’ is “alien spaceship”. That the reality of the third scenario is in a sense already accepted, either as an all-too-mundane possibility or as a real if suppressed reality for believers, witnesses, or experiencers surely calls for sociological scrutiny, especially since the undeniably real social, economic, political, and religious disruptions we in fact suffer seem utterly unrelated to exosociological events.

Of greater sociological import are the reasons why books like Schetsche’s and Anton’s obsessively repeat the anthropocentrisms outlined above, while ignoring the very real “social, economic, political, and religious” significance, effects and implications of this reflex and its projections. As Pasulka makes repeatedly clear in her recent study, regardless of whether “UFOs are real” the belief they are or may be has real world effects.

Skunkworks: First Orbit

Skunkworks has been at it a year now.

The initial impulse behind this blog was to keep me honest. I’ve been at work  (mainly on various drawing boards) on a long poem, whose working title is Orthoteny, that aspires to do for the UFO mythology what Ovid’s Metamorphoses did for classical mythology. And though I’ve test-flown various prototypes—poems such as “Flying Saucers”, “Will o’ the Wisp”, “Q’ Reveals the Real Secret Space Program”, and “Magonian Latitudes” and the sequence On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery—the work on Orthoteny had stalled, and when UFO Conjectures publicized my chapbook on the Phantom Airship Mystery, I imagined that developing the work in public would be a way of holding myself accountable.

One way of getting toward the poem is to imagine the countless stories around the UFO as constituting a “modern myth of things seen in the sky” and to read it as such. Many of the posts at Skunkworks have been just that, interpretations of various aspects of the myth as it has been developed since 1947. Complementing this hermeneutic labour has been reading classics of the canon to grasp their respective contributions to the myth and the poetic resonances within and between them.

But flying a parallel path to my poetic endeavors has been a cultural critical approach to the phenomenon. Already in 2000 with my collaborator Susan Palmer I published a study of the Raelian Movement International “Presumed Immanent” that argued that the UFO mythology was intimately bound up with and revelatory of the technoscientific spirit of modernity; that, like a collective dream, it expressed the anxieties and aspirations of the “advanced” societies and, at the same time, provided leverage for an ideological critique of that spirit; that, the UFO, like a funhouse mirror, reflected the truth of modernity back to it, but in a distorted form. Many of the posts here this past year have explored this thesis from various angles and in greater detail.

And despite being avowedly concerned exclusively with the meaning rather than the being, nature or truth of the phenomenon, with what I have called “the UFO Effect”, as any assiduous student of deconstruction will know, such distinctions, by their very separating two fields, unify as much as divide. For this reason, I have, at times, touched on matters more properly ufological, despite always attempting to steer back into the phenomenological lane.

On the immediate horizon is an omnibus review of three books that seek to bring ufology into the Twenty-first century, reviews of two books by religious studies scholars that touch on two different aspects of the phenomenon (one of which is D.W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic), and further entries in the series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”. On the drawing board are more than a dozen other posts-in-the-working on the weaponization of the myth, various aspects of its sociopolitical implications, as well as some others on the peculiar logic of ufology. I hope too to address some English-language poetry about UFOs as a way of mapping what in fact has been accomplished in this direction. And of course given the nature of the phenomenon and the mill of rumour and speculation it drives I’ll be always on the lookout for synchronicitious inspirations for developments unimagined by my present philosophy to address.

To this first year’s readers: thank you for your interest and your occasional interventions. And special gratitude is extended on this occasion to Rich Reynolds for outing my ufological predilections a year ago.

Back to the Skunkworks!

 

Revelation, Enlightenment, and the Flying Saucer

Things at UFO Conjectures have taken a markedly spiritual turn. First, some thoughts on UFOs in the cosmos of Jesuit thinker Teihard de Chardin, then speculations about possible UFO sightings and extraterrestrial encounters in the Koran, and, finally, most interestingly, reflections on the failed promise of the flying saucers:  namely, that they have yet to prove to be spaceships piloted by highly advanced beings with answers to our pressing material, and, most importantly, spiritual questions, e.g., “Why do we exist; what is the meaning of life? Why does evil exist?” etc.

The spiritual significance of the UFO has long been with us and is well-studied (interested parties might consult The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds, ed. Lewis (1995)). The first contactee was arguably Emanuel Swedenborg, whose The Earths In Our Solar System:  Which Are Called Planets, And The Earths In The Starry Heavens, Their Inhabitants And The Spirits And Angels There From Things Heard And Seen (1758) recounts his astral travels and meetings with the inhabitants of other planets. Some of Madame Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters hailed from Venus, the same who met with Guy Ballard beneath Mount Shasta in 1930, one of whom, who called himself Orthon, stepped from a Venusian scout ship in 1952 and shook George Adamski’s hand. Since, numerous New Religious Movements (NRMs) have been founded whose gods are extraterrestrial rather than supernatural (among them, The Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, perhaps most famously the International Raelian Movement or most disturbingly Heaven’s Gate). Nevertheless, these NRMs seem only to pour old wine into new bottles, their gods the old deities in space suits instead of robes, at least as far as their revelatory function goes.

The more secular version of this sentiment is one as complex as it is occluded. In the first place, it blends technological with moral if not spiritual sophistication. Any creature capable of inventing ways to travel to earth from a distant planet (or dimension or time) is thought as having to possess a philosophical knowledge equal to its technical know-how. This technological optimism is offered as grounds for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI):  any more advanced civilization we might contact will have likely encountered and solved the dire threats to the continued existence of our civilization if not species that that technological development itself entailed. The same notion inspires the utopian future depicted in the Star Trek franchise, where technology has solved the problems it led to, science and technology advancing hand in hand with social and moral enlightenment. Just why being “advanced” in this way should also entail an even further philosophical or spiritual enlightenment, one capable of answering “The Big Questions” (Why do we exist? What is the meaning of life? Why does evil exist?, etc.), is an interesting question itself, but what is telling is how it seems to assume a concept of enlightenment that is all encompassing, failing to differentiate between the scientific, moral, philosophical, spiritual, and so on, and, most importantly, harnessing all development in the first place to the technoscientific.

The history of the past century or so has disabused many of this idea of progress. The carnage of The Great War resulted from the collision of technical ingenuity and industry with quaintly outmoded ideas of how to conduct warfare. The resulting shock was in part expressed by Dadaism, which inferred that if what Progress had led to was the dead end of No Man’s Land, then radically other ways forward had to be found, ways which left behind the “Reason” or rationality that invented the machine-gun and poison gas and the values of the “West” that had inspired millions to march singing patriotic songs to their grisly mutilation and death. Such misgivings were only more gravely deepened by the use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the revelations of the organized mass murder in Europe that led to the coining of the expression ‘genocide’ and the juridical concept of “crimes against humanity.” In this latter context, two anecdotes illuminate the relation of technology to culture and morality. One famous concentration camp commandant would retire home in the evenings to relish playing Schubert on the piano in the warm bosom of his family, while a German philosopher laconically but not less perceptively summed up the Holocaust as the application of industrial agriculture to mass murder. Even the realms of science fiction and ufology, despite their ideological commitments, betray an awareness of how technological power and morality are uncoupled. The “invasion from Mars” is an old cliché, wherein the ruthless rapaciousness of the extraterrestrial invader is made all the more threatening by its technological superiourity. Likewise, the experiences of alien abductees at the hands (or claws) of their vastly more advanced abductors are famously cruel, both physically and emotionally, lacking empathy and compassion.

In the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991), Jacques Vallée sums up the situation:

…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.

Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.

But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems:  those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)

Even if UFOs are spaceships from more advanced civilizations, the technical prowess they evidence hardly entails high morality let alone philosophical insight into perennial, metaphysical questions. And even if they descended as teachers, rapt and pious acceptance of their revelations would be a kind of spiritual suicide. For, over against revelation is enlightenment, whose watch word is sapere aude, dare to think…for yourself.

 

Revelation in Reverse, or Myth, Synchronicity, and the Collective Unconscious

Two meaningful coincidences dovetail together to prompt the following thoughts.

First, in a post at Mysterious Universe, Micah Hanks speculates that unidentified delta wing aircraft, such as those witnessed by two Air Force colonels 24 July 1952 and perhaps those seen by Kenneth Arnold 24 June 1947, might have been early prototypes of what was to become aircraft like Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber. Hanks bases his inference on the description of the UFOs seen in 1952—”three bright silver, delta wing craft with no tails and no pilot’s canopies. The only thing that broke the sharply defined, clean upper surface of the triangular wing was a definite ridge that ran from the nose to the tail”—which, he notes, bears a remarkable similarity to various stealth aircraft today, a flying wing aeroform originally that of the German Horton IX Go 229 that made its first powered flight in February 1945, prototypes of which were captured by American forces at the end of the World War II.

Prima facie, Hanks’ conjecture appears persuasive, given the shared features of the Horton, the UFOs witnessed, and variations on the Stealth design. However, one need answer several objections to make the case more compelling, the most serious of which was raised in the earliest days of the phenomenon:  if the UFOs were experimental aircraft, then why were they seen indiscriminately over land and sea globally, threatening both civilian populations in the event of a crash or capture by foreign powers? By 1952, for example, the American Air Force had already experimented with several flying wing designs, some of which had crashed during test flights, and had secured proving grounds since the earliest days of rocket research where experimental aircraft could be tested both securely in and in secrecy.

Regardless of how this or other objections might be answered in more sophisticated versions of Hanks’ argument (and there are more sophisticated versions), in the context of his post, the 1952 sighting appears explainable “in hindsight“, and it’s two features of this inference that caught my attention:  on the one hand, a later event (in this case, an aeronautical development) is said to reveal the hitherto veiled truth of an earlier one (the 1952 sighting) “in hindsight”, and, on the other, this revelation is based on a visual (or morphological) similarity that prompts the comparison of the two events.

ABYDOS-HELICOPTER-PHOTO

Anyone familiar with the discourse around Ancient Astronauts or Aliens will likely recognize this way of thinking. Ancient Alien enthusiasts pick out a helicopter among the hieroglyphs reproduced above: a modern aeronautical development reveals the truth of an ancient artifact because of how the two resemble each other. The same eye would likely see two flying saucers in this post’s featured image, a piece of rock art from Tanzania. In both cases, now is projected onto then because of a perceived resemblance.

One is likely more persuaded by Hanks than the Ancient Alien theorist. The Horton flying wing, the description of what was witnessed in 1952, and the variations on the Stealth Bomber are all modern, regardless of their relative places on the historical timeline, and the aeroform in question is unequivocally real and functional, whereas, in the case of the ancient Egyptian “helicopter” and the modern-day one, or the cave painting UFOs and UFO photos since the 1940s, we are dealing with historically distant artifacts and, more importantly, different conventions of representation (as I have explained before) that render the comparison questionable in the first place.

But these visual coincidences share something in an uncanny way with the second synchronicity that prompts this post. Anthropologist Christopher F. Roth in his chapter in E.T. Cultures:  Anthropology in Outerspaces (ed. Battaglia) “Ufology as Anthropology:  Races, Extraterrestrials, and the Occult” remarks the hypnotically-recovered testimony of two abductees. “Joe” tells John Mack that the alien-human hybridization program of which he is a part is “necessary” to preserve the human “race and their seed and their knowledge,” because “human beings are in trouble” due to an impending “electromagnetic” catastrophe caused by the “negative” technology humankind has developed. Concerns about electromagnetic pollution have been around for decades, but have ramped up considerably with the impending introduction of 5G technologies and their perceived and imagined threats. In a similar vein, Roth relates, famous abductee Betty Andreasson tells Raymond Fowler that the hybridization program is needed because of “escalating infertility,” a striking statement in view of recent declining sperm counts in the developed world and the even more recently discovered effects of global warming on insect fertility. Reading the words of “Joe” and Betty Andreasson, the UFO believer is likely to nod and believe their testimony possesses prophetic import. It seems to me, however, that these “prophecies” become so only “in hindsight.” Again, present circumstances are projected, in this case, onto words uttered decades ago, words whose generality is skewed and focussed to make them harmonize with contemporary developments.

But my purpose here is not to debunk a kind of fallacious reasoning at work among the ufophilic or ufomaniacal. If, as Jung words it, the practically countless stories about UFOs and their pilots constitute a “modern myth of things seen in the skies”, then the logic I sketch at work here is more interestingly understood as mythological rather than merely fallacious. One could turn to Claude Lévi-Strauss, who, in his monumental four-volume Mythologies, sets out to demonstrate that the logic underwriting myth is as rigorous and functionally valuable as modern-day science; whether stone or steel, an axe is an axe. Jung, too, posits a ground for the kind of connections made by Hanks, the Ancient Astronaut/Alien enthusiast, or the devotee of revelations of Experiencers, namely that source of dreams, visions, and myth, the Collective Unconscious. Jung’s Collective Unconscious is “exalted above all temporal change”, i.e., in it, everything happens at once; it is eternal (timeless). Correspondences between its elements therefore cannot be causal (since cause and effect are temporally related) but synchronicitious, meaningfully coincident, just like the correspondences remarked above. Because these synchronicities are essentially atemporal, revelation can operate in reverse, with the present illuminating hitherto occulted truths in the recent or distant past.

At this point, however, I am taking up Jung’s ideas not as explanations for that modern myth but as elements of it themselves. For that modern myth is not so modern, rising as it must from the Collective Unconscious (present in its own way in the radically different thinking of Lévi-Strauss), meaningfully coincident as it is with Alchemy (as Jung shows at great lengths) but also with archetypal symbols from philosophy and poetry, as well. As James Olney writes in his chapter “The Esoteric Flower:  Yeats and Jung” (in Yeats and the Occult, ed. George Mills Harper, MacMillan, 1975)

There is one symbol…or a unified complex of symbols figured in a variety of related images, which tantalizes and frustrates (and has done for twenty-five centuries) more than any other, yielding many meanings to the seeker yet seeming at the same time to withhold at least as many meanings as it give up. That image or symbol—and it occurs as the central symbol as all esoteric studies from Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Plato down to W. B. Yeats and C. J. Jung—is the gyre, the cycle, the circle, the sphere. There are hundreds of ways it can appear (a winding staircase, a snake eating its own tail, a round tower, a cycle of history, the philosopher’s stone of the alchemists, the flight of a falcon, an Unidentified Flying Object…

What’s at work here is not faulty logic but the mythopoetic imagination, whether Jung’s Collective Unconscious; Lévi-Strauss’ myth, not spoken by human beings but speaking them; or the Magical Universe (MU) of William Burroughs’ own Mythology for the Space Age wherein, like in the Hermeticist’s Universe, everything is related to everything else, like in the vision of the ‘Pataphysician for whom the universal solvent, a version of the Philosopher’s Stone, that dissolves all things in their infinite relatedness is language.

And I see by way of a further “meaningful coincidence” that while I worked on this post UFO Conjectures posted thoughts on UFOs (and “alien encounters”) in the Qur’an!

 

 

 

 

 

Alien “Races” or “Species”?

At the end of January, I had the pleasure of discussing with M. J. Banias the topic of “Abducting the Alt-Right: Race Politics and Paranormal Subcultures”, a conversation I followed up on here.

Of those generous enough to comment on the conversation, one observes:

You could argue that ufology as it currently exists is inherently racist in that it’s an effort to place aliens (the really radical Other!) into categories based on appearance. The fact that white/European/male flavored aliens keep turning out to be at the top of the hierarchy just shows that ufology is very much an outgrowth of Western modernity.

The commenter explicitly takes her cue from anthropologist Christopher F. Roth’s chapter in E.T. Cultures:  Anthropology in Outerspaces (ed. Battaglia) “Ufology as Anthropology:  Races, Extraterrestrials, and the Occult”. Roth’s thesis is that “ufology is in one sense all about race, and it has more to do with terrestrial racial schemes as social and cultural constructs than most UFO believers are aware” (41), i.e., that extraterrestrials (ETs) are made sense of according to racial categories and notions about race already in place, in ways that are often as unconscious as explicit. Some of Roth’s conclusions are tenuous while others are quite compelling and provocative, but I think both his and the commenter’s thoughts on this matter likewise elide in a telling manner an important distinction that is also confused by UFO believers, that between race and species.

Despite acknowledging that in the literature one finds “a bewildering array of alien abductors, with the typical Grey only one species [!] among a panoply that include[s] mummies, trolls, sasquatches, and robots” (69) (one could point to the the many volumes of ET entity reports compiled by Albert S. Rosales, as well), Roth restricts his analysis to humanoid ETs that lend themselves to a racialized understanding, such as Nordics or Greys. ETs range in their morphology from the human (such as the Nordic), to the (to coin a distinction) humanoid (such as the Grey), to the anthropomorphic (such as the Reptoid or Insectoid or Mantid), to creatures such as one reported in Japan, a combination of “starfish and human.” ETs, then, might be said to appear along a continuum that ranges from the human to the animal, which would explain why web searches for both “extraterrestrial races” and “extraterrestrial species” tend to return nearly identical results, depending upon one’s search bubble. Even among those ufophiles whose efforts are most heavily invested in ETs, the terms ‘race’ and ‘species’ are used inconsistently:  Michael Salla refers to ETs as other races without exception, while Corey Goode uses the terms interchangeably.

This confusion, on the one hand, reinforces the charge that ufology is a pseudoscience. Any ET as such will be another species both with respect to terrestrial homo sapiens and in regards to each other. Even the concept of race as anything other than a cultural construct has been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. Moreover, the idea often found in abductee, contactee, and conspiracist literature that ETs interbreed with humankind is nonsense. How such imaginings emerge from and play into various aspects of racism is fairly well laid out by Roth.

But, on the other hand, this muddle among the believers also touches on the relation between the human and the animal in a richly contradictory manner. ETs, first, reflect an anthropocentric thinking, as I have often pointed out before. That ETs are identified as other races reinforces how much they resemble us. Morphologically, they are humanoid (in the case of Nordics or Greys) or anthropomorphic (in the case of Reptoids or Mantids); they are, moreover, like us, technological and social, but, most importantly, they spontaneously pick out human beings from the manifold other species of life on earth as the one most like themselves, mirroring our identification with them as extraterrestrial intelligences, the very same prejudice that underwrites the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

However much ETs are anthropomorphic, that they appear in forms closer to the animal than the human, whether reptilian, insectoid, avian, feline, picsine, or what have you, and that they are grasped equally as different species ironically effaces the anthropocentrism that governs their morphology and by the same stroke negates the anthropocentrism that divides the human from the animal, itself a cultural, ontotheological dis