Imagine That!

Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures has complained, rightly, I think, about the uniformity of the alien in both recent science fiction and in the contact reports ufology chooses to scrutinize compared to the early days of the modern phenomenon in the 1950s. Any reader of Skunkworks will know too the consistent criticisms I level against the obsessive anthropocentrism of ufological speculations. As I commented myself on Reynolds’ complaint, recent cinematic and televisual incarnations of the Alien Other came to mind that strike me as strange enough to begin to approach just how uncanny a truly alien entity might be. (Though none compare to this real world report out of Japan, here!).

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

A thematically complex film, Arrival‘s depiction of the alien Heptapods is as creative as https _i.ytimg.com_vi_ghgfg2iqpd0_hqdefaultits plotting and its probing the relation between language and consciousness. Its first virtue is how the aliens resemble octopi or squid more than human beings. Recent discoveries concerning the genetics and intelligence of octopi harmonize nicely with this conception. Despite their being linguistic, tool-using (technological) creatures—an anthropocentrism I often criticize here—the radical difference of their language due to their profoundly different mode of temporality and the way their ships resemble stone more than metal and dissolve in mist rather than shoot away into the sky also set their depiction apart from the stereotypical Little Grey Man in his Flying Saucer. The cognoscenti will recognize in that fading away a correlate to real-world sighting reports.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Like Arrival, Under the Skin is more than an alien body-horror film. Still, its version of the alien is even more cunning.  The aliens seem to be fluid, a witty metaphor, capable of filling the role of a human being, whose skin they don. https _blogs-images.forbes.com_markhughes_files_2015_10_under-the-skin-1940x1035.jpgEven when this disguise is finally ripped off in the movie’s climax, the audience sees only an impersonal black form, as featureless as the liquid form is amorphous. By refusing to actually depict an alien, it employs a visual metaphor that is all the richer for its being nonliteral.

 

The Mothman Prophecies (Max Pellington, 2002)

Though strictly more about ultraterrestrials than extraterrestrials, Pellington’s cinematic version of John Keel’s classic book includes one of the most compelling representations of what would otherwise seem a UFO encounter experience:  an indistinct, blinding orange-red light, which seems as much an interdimensional portal as a UFO, an uncanny dread or calm, and a vaguely-human figure, communicating in a weird, whispering hybrid of telepathy and speech. https _medialifecrisis.com_files_images_articles_201712-popgap_mothman-prophecies-2002_mothman-prophecies-2002-00-10-21The figure of the Mothman not only appears as a dark, indistinct, red-eyed menacing silhouette, but pareidolically as a mark on a car’s radiator grille, tree bark, and, most wittily, in a brainscan image.

The X-Files (Chris Carter, 1993-2018)

For all its inconsistencies, when The X-Files was good, it was very, very good, however unconsciously. On the one hand, it presents us, rather wearily, with varieties of Greys; nevertheless, the ETs appear also, more provocatively, as hybrid clones, shapeshifters, and a black oil. https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_en_6_68_vienen_txfThese latter imaginings share the strengths of those in Under the Skin and The Mothman Prophecies in being more suggestive than literal. As hybrid clones, the alien is as much a monstrous DNA as nonhuman being. The shapeshifting variety (however anthropocentric) wears its protean, unclassifiable Otherness on its sleeve, as it were. And the black oil combines alien-as-infection body horror, the fluid identity of the shapeshifter, and a metaphorical resemblance to petroleum ,all in a single, tour de force image.

Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1971)

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky’s arthouse film Solaris is a richly suggestive cinematic work that transcends mere genre. The title’s planet, which mirrors and conjures the desires of the humans sent to explore it, is a vivid metaphor for the projective character of human understanding in general and how we place as much as face objects of perception, especially the alien Other. Lem’s metaphor encapsulates much of my critique of the ETH and its implications.

solariseau

Science Fiction, Folklore, Myth, the UFO, and Ufology: a note

Commenting on my review of Gerald Heard’s The Riddle of the Saucers: Is Another World Watching? (1950), part of an on-going series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”, Martin S. Kottmeyer generously provides extensive cultural context to Heard’s speculation that the flying saucers were piloted by super bees from Mars. Kottmeyer concludes:  “Heard may seem prescient, but he was part of a tradition of science and science fiction speculations that was quite orthodox within the genre he was part of” (my emphasis). This sentence is curious:  what genre does Heard’s book belong to?

The beginnings of a rigorous answer would evoke genre theory and reception theory; a prima facie materialist answer would trace the way Heard’s book was marketed and  how librarians catalogued it over the nearly seven decades since it was published.

Kottmeyer seems to group Heard’s book, one of the first on flying saucers, with a  “tradition of science and science fiction speculations,” which seems paradoxical. Science writing, even when it is popular or speculative, makes a claim to being true, while science fiction, as a kind of fiction, does not (or, more accurately, it makes a claim to an artistic truth…). However much A Brief History of Time and The Time Machine might have the same word in their titles and be science writing and science fiction, respectively, they surely belong to two different genres.

Today, and surely for some decades before, ufology is a liminal, paradoxical genre. On the one hand, it makes claims to being true, but in a way that is difficult to pin down. Some ufological volumes, e.g. Jacques Vallée’s Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965) would make a claim to being true, in a provisional sense, in the same way any other sufficiently speculative science book might. Others, such as Desmond Leslie’s Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953) stake a different truth claim, one more akin to that of a religious work.

However much the truth claim of that paraliterature ufology is oscillates between the natural and spiritual, it can’t quite claim to belong to the same genre as, e.g., Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems:  The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017) regardless of how speculative the later chapters of Rovelli’s book might be. As many have pointed out, ufology is a pseudoscience (perhaps a genre all its own), though, as Vallée has cogently remarked, no problem is scientific in itself, only the approach to the problem can be properly called scientific.

For these reasons, perhaps, the literature about the UFO that is not explicitly fictional has been read as a kind of folklore in the making or mythology, not that either term in its  generality gets us much further. But this middle way has the advantage that it can make its truth claim and bracket it, too. However much folk wisdom might possess a merely heuristic truth, that truth is still practical and uncannily modern:  however much depression might be ultimately a result of brain chemistry, the folk psychology that underwrites meditative practice prescribes an effective therapy, and stories of faeries are as age old as they are contemporary (just ask highway builders in Iceland). A mythology, likewise, following Levi-Strauss, can claim an effective truth, just of a different kind than that of the natural sciences:  regardless of whether an axe is made of stone or steel, it’s still an axe. Myth, like folklore, in the case of the ufological literature, is possessed of a weird reality, as daemonic as those entities and situations it deals with.

For these reasons, I tend to take the pseudoscientific ufological paraliterature as belonging to a genre neither scientific nor science fictional, as its truth is neither one that is subject to experiment nor calculation nor one that invites us to only imagine the world as other than it is or was. Its truth, like the flying saucer, hovers between the two; like the UFO, it is both/neither material and/nor immaterial; nevertheless, like its namesake, it leaves traces, in the culture and its imaginary.

http _www.tierslivre.net_spip_local_cache-vignettes_l340xh407_arton96-87198

Poor Object Blowback: on History’s Project Blue Book

History’s new series, Project Blue Book, has inspired among the ufophilic a range of reactions, from the tepid to the boiling, from “interesting, give it a chance” to outrage. Every response I’ve heard or read is more an example of ufomania than ufophilia, obsessed with the facts of and the truth behind each case the series (putatively) explores and the historical personalities involved, neglecting what the show, in fact, is, a cultural artifact.

Of course, History’s marketing of the series is directed at this ufophilic hunger for facts and truth, an appetite History cunningly toys with, simultaneously teasing and frustrating this desire with vacuous series and documentaries about Ancient Aliens and unsolved UFO mysteries. A glance at the channel’s description of the show reveals this bait and switch. First, History makes it seem like the series is a documentary:

Project Blue Book chronicles the true top secret United States Air Force-sponsored investigations into UFO-related phenomena in the 1950’s and 60’s known as “Project Blue Book.” … Each episode will draw from the actual files, blending UFO theories with authentic historical events from one of the most mysterious eras in United States history. [my emphasis]

Only after this disingenuous opening gambit is the series’ virtues as a television drama played up,

a drama series about the Air Forces’ 1952-1970 investigation into the UFO phenomenon. Blue Book is Mad Men meets the real life X-Files as it follows Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Air Force Captain Ed Ruppelt as they confront the very real possibility that we may be being visited and they may be pawns in a nationwide disinformation operation. … By 1970, Hynek will transform from ardent skeptic into avid believer, convinced that we are not alone. [my emphasis]

Here, History not only makes the unfulfillable promise that this series will somehow rise to the level of Mad Men and The X-Files, but mixes in a dash of conspiracy theory for X-philes with a dollop of never-fail ufophile bait, “the very real possibility that we may be being visited” and the satisfying transformation of an “ardent skeptic into avid believer, convinced that we are not alone.” This hitherto successful mix of fact and fiction is a volatile one, however, exploding in the face of History’s promotional department in the ufomaniacal disgust with the dramatic license the series takes with those “authentic historical events”.

Regarding the series from a perspective that tries to balance the contradictory claims the series make for itself reveals both its virtues and its eyeroll- and sigh-inducing failures. The opening scenes of Episode 1, “The Fuller Dogfight” are illuminating.

The opening shot is promising in its initial ambiguity:  midair, at night, two lights, one red, one green, appear in a cloud. These first seconds present an image reminiscent of several from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What are they? For a moment, we don’t know. Quickly, however, two training aircraft appear; the lights are theirs. The pilots have a brief conversation, and the trainee returns to home base. That Fuller’s plane then dives to buzz a football field disturbs the suspension-of-disbelief, as one would imagine that air traffic over an urban area, especially at night, would be carefully controlled. When the UFO does appear, its appearance is satisfyingly fresh: an indistinct, somewhat amorphous blue light, instead of the all-too-common “nuts-and-bolts” spaceship all-too-often depicted by special effects departments. But this surprising pleasure is quickly spoiled by the light’s being given a recognizable sound (however “weird”) that evokes alien technology; silence, rather, would have heightened the overall suspense. When Fuller opens fire on the light playing cat-and-mouse with him, the scene’s believability is again sacrificed at the altar of popular science-fiction. The scene reaches its climax with Fuller’s plane appearing to be lifted straight up in the light of the UFO, the plane’s wing suffering some mysterious damage in a shower of sparks, and Fuller screaming, in an uncontrolled descent.

If, for the sake of a broader perspective, we pull back from the Gorman Dogfight this scene allegedly alludes to, we might be struck by how much its final shots bring to mind the 1973 Coyne Helicopter UFO Case, wherein a military helicopter, too, experienced a sudden, uncontrolled climb, seemingly under the influence of a UFO. Moreover, Fuller’s plummeting downward brings to mind the crash of Thomas Mantell. These associations suggest the writer is subordinating history to drama. That, as we’re told before the episode begins, “The cases depicted are based on real events” is at worst misleading and at best ambiguous, and just how this ambiguity is resolved determines the amount of disappointment, frustration or outrage a ufophilic viewer will feel, for “The Fuller Dogfight” is not a representation of the Gorman Dogfight, but an amalgam of USAF pilot-UFO encounters, an archetypal ufological story. The writer’s creative license opens the space between historical and artistic truth, between the real events and the archetypal stories that make up the UFO mythology that is the real material of the drama, a space viewers apprised of this distinction can relax into or, ufomaniacally demanding the plot adhere to the facts, plummet into wailing like the damned.

The next scene, in the words of one its characters, is “compelling”. We cut, or segue, from Fuller’s plane in a twisting, uncontrolled descent, into a bright, white-yellow light, the pilot’s fate suspended, as the camera pulls back to reveal this illumination is a head-on shot into the blinding lens of a film projector (a segue repeated later in the first episode to interesting effect). This is the first in a dizzying sequence of reflexivities whereby the series foregrounds its own fictionality in order to comment on itself, an artistic device going back to Helen’s weaving a tapestry of the scenes she witnesses on the fields outside the walls of Troy in the Iliad, an image of the rhapsode’s weaving his tale. In this scene’s first reflexivity, the unseen television camera’s perspective is lost in the film projector’s light. The cameras’ respective perspectives might be said to fuse, establishing an equivalence between the two, and thereby between the televisual fiction we are viewing with whatever cinematic fiction is being projected, i.e., foregrounding their respective media foregrounds the fictionality of both the TV series and the film.

What is being screened, we see, is the closing of the The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), at least until, as the camera pans out, a character I’ll call Air Force General 1 (AFG1) irritatedly orders it stopped. The plot of our modern UFO TV series frames that of a classic flying saucer film, a device that serves to foreground, again, the televisual fictionality of Project Blue Book; the overt fictionality of the film reflects back the tacit fictionality of the series, a fictionality otherwise repressed by the viewer in their suspension-of-disbelief, at least until they are nudged to reflection by just such instances of (generic) self-referentiality.

Next, an overhead shot shows a round table with twelve seats, most occupied by military men. The character at the movie projector I’ll call Mr Secretary addresses AFG1: “Truman assembled this group to control the narrative on this issue, not Hollywood, and we are losing that war.” The reference to “this group” assembled by Truman invokes the mythology around MJ-12, a clandestine dozen recruited to manage the extraterrestrial reality of flying saucers after the crash of one at Roswell (at least) and the retrieval of its pilots, dead and alive. More interesting, though, is how the fiction, again, folds onto itself: the fiction of the TV series presents a cinematic fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as intervening in, governing or forming, “the narrative on this issue” (“this issue” supposedly the mystery of the flying saucers), competing with the the narrative the group puts forward in its own attempt to control or guide public perception of and reaction to rumours about flying saucers. That is, within the fiction of the series, the official fiction (the official lie that there is no such thing as flying saucers) is posed as competing with Hollywood cinematic fiction; a fiction that suppresses its fictionality (the official lie) wars with a fiction that stages its fictionality, the various filmic fantasies of Hollywood, all within the frame of the governing fiction of the series itself.

This war between the official story and the Hollywood story is curiously asymmetrical. The official story is one, while the Hollywood stories are many; but, more importantly, the former makes a claim to truth, while the latter is overtly fictional. That the two are staged to struggle in this way reveals how the mystery is answered in the real world by authority and imagination, the two woven inextricably into one tapestry of public ideation. Within the fictional world of the series, the war is between the claim there’s no such thing as flying saucers (as Captain Quinn tells Hynek when they first meet) and the speculation, however imaginary, that they are real and that they pose a threat to national, if not planetary, security. However, the Secretary’s words are comically ironic in how they juxtapose the spin of the series as a TV series and the spin of Hollywood. In other words, the war is not only one between the official version and the movie version in the fictional world of the series but also a kind of Oedipal agon between the Father of ufological entertainments, represented by The Day the Earth Stood Still and other classic flying saucer films, and the televisual Son, this latest iteration of “the narrative on this issue.” Regardless, if we grant that fictions, cinematic, televisual, or otherwise, can compete with the truth the way that so worries the Secretary, then the expression of his worry is also a confirmation of the social power of the fiction of which he is a part, namely Project Blue Book.

The third scene, Quinn’s office at Wright-Patterson AFB, is, most charitably, another instance of the pattern of reflexivity developed in the previous one that introduced Truman’s group. Quinn’s office is reminiscent of Agent Mulder’s, with all manner of pictures, maps, clippings, etc. on the walls. As Kevin Randle has noted, “some of the material there is out of place. It shouldn’t show up for years.” A case in point is a photograph of the Lubbock Lights to Quinn’s right just as he comes through the door into his office from the filing room. As we know now, the Lubbock Lights don’t appear until Episode 3. Either the continuity director has made a snafu, or, given the complex sophistication of the preceding scene, the articles tacked on the walls might refer to upcoming episodes. If the remainder of the first season bears out this hypothesis, then what would seem sloppiness is, in fact, a sly, aesthetic choice. And this is, strictly speaking, an hypothesis, as it admits of falsification!

I turn, now, from a close reading of the first episode’s opening scenes to a more general appreciation of Season One’s first three episodes.

Given the dilemma the series poses for itself, to be both a historical “chronicle” and a TV drama, the first episode (“The Fuller Dogfight”) is relatively successful, setting up the middle way the series will fictionalize the “actual files” (making of each case an archetypal rather than an historical moment), assembling the dramatic machinery that will drive the series (the conflict between Quinn’s duty and Hynek’s quest for the truth, the secrets hidden and manipulated by Truman’s group, the Men-in-Black, the mysterious blonde Susie, and the nature and purpose of the UFOs themselves), and establishing character (Hynek and Quinn already demonstrating a pleasing chemistry) and atmosphere (America in the Cold War Fifties).

Where Episode One explores the air force / UFO encounter scenario, the second episode (“The Flatwoods Monster”) stages the Crashed Saucer Retrieval myth, Hangar 18, and physical effects associated with close encounters. Again, its relation to the actual case of the The Flatwoods Monster is peripheral. But, where Episode One was a fairly intriguing, competent work of script-writing, Episode Two crashes and burns like the meteor / flying saucer that opens it. The behaviour of the townspeople is unmotivated, and the explanation Quinn offers (“fight or flight”) is nonsensical. Susie’s smoking in her darkroom is a volatile breach of verisimilitude almost as egregious as the ahistorical racial mix of citizenry in small town West Virginia. And a laugh-out-loud moment occurs when the mental patient Evelyn Meyers refers to the Men-in-Black as the “Men-in-Hats”, as if every man didn’t wear a hat at the time or the audience hadn’t by chance read any of the reviews of The Adjustment Bureau that make the same joke. The scriptwriter, not Evelyn, should have been thrown out a window for that howler. Nevertheless, the development of the Men-in-Black subplot (with Hynek’s guessing the string of numbers given him in Episode One maps co-ordinates to a location in Antarctica, and Evelyn Meyer’s passing him a photo of a mysterious obelisk) affords a small pleasure, along with the wit of explaining the monster as an owl, an important animal in later alien abduction accounts, regardless of the same explanation’s being offered in fact five decades after the actual incident.

The third episode, “The Lubbock Lights”, takes up the circumstances of the actual case to push the series’ narrative forward and to map further ufological archetypes, electrical interference (either vehicular or systemic), physical effects (burns and photophobia in Episode Two, paralysis here in Episode Three), and UFO radar returns.Where Episode One was fairly competent TV, and Episode Two catastrophically bad, Episode Three is middling. On the one hand, it handles its archetypal matter with some agility, and the (presumably) electromagnetic effects on the ruined truck are vividly imagined and, most importantly, original. On the other hand, no few snafus creep in, though less deleteriously than in Episode Two: that the lecture hall of witnesses is interviewed all together is serious breach of forensic protocol; there’s a serious plot hole that no ads can fill between Hynek’s and Quinn’s facing down the Lubbock townspeople on Hollister Street and their driving to the countryside; Susie’s toying or forcing the knob of the Hyneks’ front door makes little sense; and even though a witness claims the lights were silent, each time they fly over they do make a stereotypical alien spacecraft sound.

However much the show so far is a mixed bag, it does, happily, get some things right. It captures the trauma or stigma associated with a UFO sighting, as in Fuller’s obsessive derangement or the violence directed against the Downing family that reported encountering the Flatwoods Monster. That official air force involvement was an exercise in debunking has been understood since the earliest days of the phenomenon, as Donald Keyhoe’s first book reveals. The writers cunningly hide Easter Eggs for the series’ more vigilant fans. Fuller’s call sign is “Cooper”; Quinn refers to him as “Coop”, both a funny pun and, in the wake of Season Three of Twin Peaks, a sly allusion to Agent Dale Cooper’s nickname. General Harding’s chess partner is played by Steven Williams, the actor some viewers will recognize as one of Mulder’s Deep Throat informants, Mr X. More striking are the many allusions to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, inescapable given the material the series deals with and its archetypal approach to weaving it into its various plots:  the song Fuller can’t get out of his head (“How High the Moon”) brings to mind the contactees’ obsessive visions of Devil’s Tower; the latitude and longitude given Hynek are reminiscent of the analogous communication received by earth’s scientists pinpointing the landing site of the ET Mothership; the burns the Downing children suffer is a close encounter effect they share with Roy Neary; the power outage in Lubbock is another shared plot element; and Quinn’s electrifying experience in his car is analogous to Roy Neary’s close encounter in his truck. Finally, along with reflexivities noted especially in the second scene of Episode One, is the running motif of the game, whether football, Scrabble, or, more prevalently, chess, harmonizing with and amplifying the various games played by the air force, the Men-in-Black, Suzie and her accomplice, other mystery figures, and the flying saucers and their putative pilots, themselves.

Whether or not the show’s failings utterly ruin it is a serious question. In one regard, it gives away too much too soon. An MJ-12 analogue appears in the second scene of Episode One, establishing immediately the series will concern itself with government cover-ups and conspiracies. By the end of Episode Two, we know already that Susie is a Russian spy, and the final scene of Generals Harding and Valentine in the show’s version of Hangar 18 in front of a crashed flying saucer under a tarpaulin introduces another all-too-worn cliché of the genre. By the end of Episode Three, it becomes clear the writers can hardly keep their story straight:  the Secretary threatens to reveal all General Harding’s secrets to the President, the same General who reminded the gathered members of Truman’s group at the beginning of Episode One that “we don’t know what the hell we’re dealing with.” And the greatest irritant is the Roswell motif: everyone seems apprised of a flying saucer’s having crashed, its pilots’ being recovered or captured, and the air force’s clumsily covering it up. In Episode Two, when Hynek asks Quinn if aliens have been reported before the Flatwoods Monster, Quinn replies, “Not since Roswell.” In the same episode a local growls back to Quinn’s explanation for his and Hynek’s visiting the Downing household, “Like you boys did with Roswell, eh?”. And in Episode Three Donald Keyhoe exclaims to the radio studio audience gathered to hear him interviewed about his famous True magazine article, “The Flying Saucers are Real”, “We all know what happened in Roswell!”. Supposedly, the writers are taking up Roswell as an element of the myth, in the way they incorporate archetypal narratives and situations. Nevertheless, the sensibility of any member of the cognoscenti must be offended by this perversion of the actual development of the story around Roswell, a relatively unknown incident at the time and one that didn’t gain fame or reference to aliens until the 1970s. Here, the creative team seems to have opted to appeal to the ufophilic fascination for crashed saucers, captured aliens, and government cover ups, that Crash/Retrieval Syndrome with which the name Roswell has become representative and synonymous. Overall, the writers seem to have lacked the nerve to create and maintain mystery and suspense and the imagination to do anything different with the material, all of which leaves viewers possessed of any discernment suspicious the series is nothing more than another coarse ploy to cash in on a known commodity, despite its increasingly diminishing returns.

History faced a choice in producing this drama. Either, on the one hand, follow the facts very closely, resisting at every point the temptation to impose the ETH avant le lettre, recreating the process whereby the ETH was posited and finally abandoned (by Hynek, at least), to thereby refresh the received, sedimented version of the history of the mystery, creating in the process the suspense that might hook an audience made up of both believers and viewers new to the story, while assuaging the vigilant ufomania that has inspired the most vehement criticisms of the existing show, living up to its own insight that “Blue Book is the origin story of everything we know about UFOs and aliens in pop culture,” or, on the other, create an absolutely new scenario with new characters, one capable of aspiring to a synthesis of both the flavour and complex drama of Mad Men and The X-files, reinventing the origin story and subsequent mythology of the UFO, gambling alienating that existing demographic obsessively eager to have its alien and government conspiracy buttons pressed yet again to win a whole new audience and produce a whole new franchise. Instead, Project Blue Book attempts both and achieves neither. Being the History channel, it made sense to bait its existing audience dangling before it a series that “chronicles the true top secret United States Air Force-sponsored investigations into UFO-related phenomena,” basing each episode on the “actual files” and “authentic historical events,” a promise best kept by a show like the first option sketched above. However, both to satisfy the expectation of spectacle aroused by a UFO drama set during the Cold War and to grow the audience by tossing the ufophilic the Alien & Conspiracy bone, the series had to veer from the more austere but interesting docudrama it promised to be upfront, into the timidly confused and impossibly compromised version it seems to be turning out to be.

pbb

 

 

Ancient Astronauts, the Linguistic Turn, and the Hermeneutic Circle

The topic of a recent private (and very brief) correspondence concerned (Immanuel) Velikovsky and (Julian) Jaynes. The former is famous for his Worlds in Collision (1950), the latter for Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). Velikovsky’s is a work of speculative cosmology, while Jaynes’ one of speculative psychology, i.e., the claims of both concern, respectively, cosmological and psychological developments in the relatively distant past. And what’s of importance here is that both take their initial impulse from ancient texts. For example, Velikovsky refers to the Long Day of Joshua (Joshua 10: 12-15) and Jaynes to the poet’s invocations of the Muse at the beginning of the Iliad.

Velikovsky’s and Jaynes’ appeal to premodern texts are arguably analogous in some ways to the same https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_d_d2_newspaper_rock_is_a_large_cliff_mural_of_ancient_indian_petroglyphs_and_pictographs_remarkable_for_the_clarity_of..._-_nara_-_5456appeal made since the dawn of the modern UFO era (post-1947) in support of the claim that UFOs have been, in fact, a constant in human history. For example, Desmond Leslie in the book he wrote with George Adamski Flying Saucers Have Landed published soon after Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision eschews the freshly-minted expression ‘flying saucer’, preferring “to use the ancient names for the sky disks such as ‘car celestial’, ‘vimanas’, and ‘fiery chariots'” (14). Ancient Astronaut “theorists” refer also to ancient art, seeing there depictions of flying saucers and extraterrestrials.

All such argumentative moves make the same questionable assumption, that premodern texts and art are universally representational. This assumption is not utterly unfounded:  Heinrich Schliemann’s taking Homer at his word resulted in his making important archeological discoveries (though it remains debatable that he in fact discovered the Troy of the Iliad), https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_thumb_d_d6_altamira_bisons.jpg_330px-altamira_bisonsand it was precisely the strikingly realistic manner of the then newly-discovered cave paintings of Altamira that gave an impulse to the visual arts at the beginning of last century, most famously perhaps in the work of Picasso. On the other hand, I’m unaware of any paleontologists inspired by the Odyssey to search for the remains of the Cyclops nor does anyone, to my knowledge, believe The Sorcerer of Les Trois-Frères to be a realistically-depicted humanoid. Indeed, this interpretive move parallels “literal” readings of the Bible that support the belief in the reality of a global inundation in the distant, mythological past. All these hermeneutics (interpretive approaches) err in the roughly the same way:  they project a historically, culturally, and socially local communicative convention (namely, one of our own) onto human textual and artistic production in general.

pintura_trois_freres
The Sorcerer of Les Trois-Frères

As the examples of the Cyclops and The Sorcerer of Les Trois-Frères should make clear, premodern texts and art cannot legitimately in general be understood as merely distorted or embellished representations of historical events. Such a representational use of media is historically and culturally local, to us. Moreover, the very notion that language can be said to represent a ready-made world (as in the picture theory of meaning in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) or that it should, as admonished by Francis Bacon in his inaugurating the Scientific Revolution, is itself a notion that has undergone a devastating critique from the perspectives both of philosophy (e.g., Novalis’ “Monologue”) and linguistics (e.g., the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis). Any attempt to enlist any not explicitly representational text as evidence must always undergo the philological labour of establishing the linguistic conventions that underwrite the meaning of that particular text in order to claim to have understood it all in the first place. And since this hermeneutic task is a historical one, undertaken by interpreters of a particular time to understand a text produced in a distant place and time, it is open-ended, always unfinished, perennially open to revision. These are the lessons of what philosophers term “the hermeneutic circle” and “the linguistic turn”, whether one takes this latter to have begun after the Great War or the French Revolution.

The error of taking all linguistic and artistic media in the same way, projecting our own practice onto the entirety of humanity in all times and places, finds its analogue in the prejudices evident in the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), as I have been at pains to make clear in several posts, most recently in regards to the example of Donald Keyhoe. The difference between the crimes-against-interpretation sketched above and the errors of the ETH is one of scale:  the linguistico-artistic error restricts itself to human cultural production, while the ETH projects an anthropocentric and culturally, historically, and socially restricted notion of intelligence onto all life in the universe.

adam kadmon

 

 

 

Breaking the Ground: Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers are Real

If it’s not too bizarre a claim to make in the context of a cultural field as marginal and questionable, in ufology Donald Keyhoe is a monumental figure. No history of the UFO can overlook his contributions as a researcher and activist, as director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) and one of the first and most forceful figures to press for Congressional hearings into the question of the UFO, arguably inaugurating similar, continuing efforts on the part of today’s Disclosure movement. What’s telling, either about the UFO as such or Keyhoe’s insight into the phenomenon, is the the way his original conclusions set forth in his article for True Magazine “The Flying Saucers are Real” and his book of the same title, both published in 1950, continue to set the ufological agenda.

In line with the USAF’s own reasoning, Keyhoe posited what is now known as the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), that UFOs are spaceships of interplanetary origin. Keyhoe and the Air Force arrived at this conclusion by a process of elimination. Some of the reported sightings could not be explained away as misidentifications or hoaxes; neither the American military nor any of its allies or enemies possessed the aeronautical technology to produce aeroforms with the flight characteristics of the disks, nor did it make sense that if the disks were experimental aircraft that they would be tested in ways that might allow this new weapon to be observed or even captured or that threatened civilian life and limb and that had actually resulted in the death of one airman, Thomas Mantell; therefore, since no conventional, earthly explanation existed to explain these uncanny flying machines, they were most likely of extraterrestrial origin. This argument in support of the ETH is repeated to this day.

The ETH found further support and elaboration in matching the patterns of reported sightings to speculations about how humankind might explore inhabited planets in the future with the result that the way the story of the flying disks had developed to this point mirrored the way human beings would proceed with their own explorations. This projection of an imagined human future behaviour also extended to the disks’ extraterrestrial origin:  the pilots’ technology must be in advance of our own, given what their ships can do and how far they must have traveled to have reached earth from some distant planet if not, as was thought more likely, star. That is, their intelligence is an anthropomorphic one, that, like our own, proceeded along a path of tool-using, technological development. At work here is a fateful generalization and failure of imagination that posits human intelligence as singular and archetypal and the radically contingent history of industrial civilization as typical of intelligent beings. Such a projection of the “human form divine” finds its culmination in Keyhoe’s finding himself unable to picture the extraterrestrials as anything other than anthropomorphic, because of

the stubborn feeling that they would resemble man. That came, of course, from an inborn feeling of man’s superiority over all living things. It carried over into the feeling that any thinking, intelligent being, whether on Mars or Wolf 359’s planets, should have evolved in the same form. (The Flying Saucers are Real, 136)

These anthropocentric and technocentric prejudices remain as operative in much of the UFO imaginary as they go unremarked.

An equally persistent set of concerns orbits the potentially disruptive consequences of the revelation of the reality of extraterrestrial, technologically advanced civilizations having appeared in our skies. Keyhoe mulling this matter over with his editor as they prepare to publish his article for True Magazine reflects that “public acceptance of intelligent life on other planets would affect almost every phase of our existence—business, defense planning, philosophy, even religions” (139), a supposition that inspires the 300+ pages of Richard M. Dolan’s and Bryce Zabel’s 2012 book A.D. After Disclosure:  When the Government Finally Reveals the Truth About Alien Contact.https _visibleprocrastinations.files.wordpress.com_2014_10_mars

More acutely, in the wake of the purported reaction to Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, many feared the most immediate reaction to the news would be widespread panic. These considerations guide the development of official reaction to the phenomenon. As Keyhoe saw it, the USAF first set out to “investigate and at the same time conceal from the public the truth about the saucers” (173). Then “it was decided to let the facts gradually leak out, in order to prepare the American people.” However, “the unexpected public reaction [to the True Magazine article] was mistaken by the Air Force for hysteria, resulting in their hasty denial that the saucers existed.” The problem of just what to reveal and conceal concerning the saucers was also complicated by Cold War national security issues. As Keyhoe saw it

The education problem is complicated by two imperative needs. We must try to learn as much as we can about the space ships’ source of power, and at the same time try to prevent clues to this information from reaching an enemy on earth. (174)

Here are nascent themes in ufological speculation that persist and have been developed to the present day. First is the belief that militaries and governments around the world have or continue to investigate UFOs. Secondly, their efforts have borne fruit in determining the (usually extraterrestrial) truth of the phenomenon. Thirdly, because of the explosive nature of these discoveries, those who hold these secrets dissimulate concerning the phenomenon to dissuade serious, public interest and to maintain either the potential or real technological advantage these secrets bestow, or, alternatively, they are engaged in a process of public education through a combination of leaks, disinformation, and popular culture (such as movie and television) to prepare society for the ultimate revelation of the reality of the extraterrestrial presence.

https _photos1.blogger.com_blogger_6956_659_400_majic6Hand in hand with this motif is that of the insider able to access this otherwise secret or tactfully unpublicized information, a figure that has morphed, today, into the whistleblower. Keyhoe, as an ex-Marine pilot, maintained many contacts within the military and government. Most of the narrative of his books is conversations he has with these inside sources. The final chapters of The Flying Saucers are Real find Keyhoe studying over two hundred secret Air Force files released to him and his petitioning a general of his acquaintance for the more than one hundred he had been denied! This figure with access to inside information undergoes a change as the official relation to the phenomenon (at least in its public guise) develops from secrecy, to debunkery, to indifference. The truth is no longer obtained via official documents from official channels, but via leaked or hacked documents or whistleblower, witness testimony.

Two other dimensions of the UFO myth appear in Keyhoe’s first book. At one point, an informant tells him that he has learned that the flying disks are British secret weapons developed from German plans and prototypes captured at the end of the Second World War (122). https _cagizero.files.wordpress.com_2016_12_nazi-ufo-flying-saucer.jpg w=592&h=350Here, the myth of the Nazi flying saucer, arguably first popularized by Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel as a money-making scheme  but since elaborated perhaps most fully by Joseph Farrell, makes very likely its first appearance in print. Moreover, although, tellingly, the Roswell incident is not mentioned in The Flying Saucers are Real, another of Keyhoe’s informants relates to him a story about “little men from Venus”:

In the usual version, two flying saucers had come down near our southwestern border. In the space craft were several oddly dressed men, three feet high. All of them were dead; the cause was usually given as inability to stand our atmosphere. The Air Force was said to have hushed up the story… (139)

The source of this particular story is given as George Koehler (165), who later admits to its being “a gag”. But the rumour also brings to mind a more famous fabrication by Frank Scully, whose Behind the Flying Saucers is published the same year as Keyhoe’s first book. Regardless of who first invents this scenario, we find here the vector for what will be called Crash/Retrieval Syndrome, a string of increasingly elaborate stories concerning crashed and retrieved flying saucers and the capture of their pilots, dead or alive, that will bloom with the rediscovery of the Roswell Crash and subsequently flower into a wildly variegated myth of reverse-engineered alien technology, secret treaties between various ET races and earth governments, breakaway civilizations, exopolitics and disclosure, a term that perhaps appears for the first time in the UFO literature in Keyhoe’s important first volume.

Addendum:  …and just to be clear

Some readers might be tempted to take this post as a panegyric to Keyhoe. My purpose, however, was to outline how even his earliest ufological publications set the ufological agenda to this day.

Most ufology, arguably, adheres to the anthropocentric ETH Keyhoe sets out. The social repercussions of the truth of the ETH are likewise seen to be still as acute and wide ranging. For this reason, the motives to maintain secrecy around private and state research into and discoveries concerning UFOs and ETs are the same Keyhoe saw. The way this secrecy is breached has changed since Keyhoe’s day, as I note, but the basic patterns of disclosure (Keyhoe’s word) are still affirmed. Moreover, the myths of Nazi flying saucers and Crash/Retrieval Syndrome are still with us, however much in more developed forms than the nascent ones present in The Flying Saucers Have Landed.

Why ufology should remain static in this way is itself a question that demands to be looked into….

 

flying_saucers_are_real_cover_keyhoe

The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: Symptom or Pathology?

David Clarke in his How UFOs Conquered the World:  The History of a Modern Myth refers to the “UFO Syndrome”, “the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be” (12), what I have called “ufophilia” (and am tempted to term, sometimes, “ufomania”). Even before George Adamski published his story of meeting a man from Venus, a latter-day Lord of the Flame, in 1953, and even before Project Sign’s famous Estimate of the Situation, desperate to explain the recalcitrant mystery of high-performing aeroforms intruding on American airspace, the public imagination had already ventured that Flying Saucers might be spaceships from another planet populated by Extraterrestrial Intelligences (ETIs), an explanation for UFO and close encounter reports that later came to be called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Though the notion of ETI was already in the air, the most notorious example being Orson Welles’ 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, the idea as such runs much deeper, and, in its ufological guise as an element of the UFO Syndrome, possesses graver implications.

flying_saucers_are_real_cover_keyhoeAn important ufological popularizer of the ETH is Donald Keyhoe. In his first book, The Flying Saucers are Real (1950), he wrestles with the question of the origin of the flying discs. Having been pushed to the ETH by a process of elimination, he tries “to imagine how they [ETIs] might look” (136). Having read what he could of what we today call exobiology, he understands that there are “all kinds of possibilities.” Then, he makes a telling confession:

It was possible, I knew, that the spacemen might look grotesque to us. But I clung to the stubborn feeling that they would resemble man. That came, of course, from an inborn feeling of man’s superiority over all living things. It carried over into the feeling that any thinking, intelligent being, whether on Mars or Wolf 359’s planets, should have evolved in the same form.

Keyhoe, here, is either ignorant (which he certainly seems to be concerning evolution) or disingenuous. The “stubborn feeling” that the ET pilots of the flying saucers “would resemble man” is hardly “inborn”. A longstanding thesis among thinkers concerned with the ecological crisis is that the thoughtless abuse of the natural world by, especially, Western industrial society is aided and abetted by its Judaeo-Christian heritage. Famously, in Genesis, man is made in God’s own image (I.26) and given dominion over creation (I.27) (an idea mocked with a theosophical flavour in Yeats’ early poem “The Indian Upon God”!). This (what a philosopher might term ontotheological) anthropocentrism is the source of Keyhoe’s feeling and more importantly it serves to reinforce capitalism’s assumption that anything and everything on (and off!) the earth is a potential resource to be exploited for profit.

There’s a strikingly illustrative scene in the film Clearcut (1991). The manager of a logging company is abducted by an ambivalent character, who is either a Native militant or, more interestingly, a nature spirit come to revenge the ruthless clearcutting of the forest. The manager is tortured in ways that mirror the loggers’ treatment of trees and, at one point, the militant holds the manager over a cliff overlooking a breathtaking natural vista, asking him, “What do you see? What do you see?” to which the manager answers, desperately mystified by the question, “Nothing!”. The fateful confluence of the Judaeo-Christian ontotheological anthropomorphism and the rapaciousness of capitalism blind humankind to both nonhuman intelligence and the innate value of nonhuman life. I have argued at length elsewhere that any unprejudiced reflection on and consequent non-anthropocentric conception of intelligence radically dethrones and decenters whatever human intelligence might believe itself to be. It might appear ironic, then, that The Anomalist can share links to UFOs and Contactees in the same space as others to new discoveries in the realm of plant and animal intelligence.

orthon
Orthon (l) and George Adamski (r)

Another irony is discernible in the concerns expressed by both the Space Brothers and other ETs. If the ETH is underwritten by a religiously-inspired anthropocentrism that in turn supports the economic system whose activity has in a matter of hardly two centuries resulted in the latest mass extinction, then the striking anthropomorphism of ETs might be said to be an imagination at the very least consistent with this catastrophically destructive social order. However, as is well-known, the Space Brothers of the Contactees landed to warn us of the dangers of atomic weapons, while abductees or Experiencers report being shown distressing images of nuclear war and environmental destruction; there has been from the start an environmental/ecological dimension to ET encounters, consistent with the view that the reports are inspired by the anxieties engendered by technoscientific development in so-called advanced societies.

As compelling is the case that the ETH is a symptom of a deeper, mortal malaise in Western society, the matter is, of course, more complex. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry Turtle Island (1974), Gary Snyder writes (47):

…Japan quibbles for words on

what kinds of whales they can kill?

 

A once-great Buddhist nation

dribbles methyl mercury

like gonorrhea

in the sea.

Here, Snyder reminds us that the relation between religion and economy is a complicated question; however much the Judaeo-Christian idolization of the “human form divine” is harmonious with the profit-driven and otherwise mindless exploitation of the natural world, religious views that, in this case, are overtly concerned with non-human life exist, however uneasily, alongside such insensitive destructiveness. There is, moreover, an analogous paradox in certain aboriginal worldviews, which, on the one hand, speak of “the flying people” (birds) and “the crawling people” (snakes) and that have been the inspiration for radical ecological initiatives, such as the push to give rivers and ecosystems rights under the law, while on the other, their understanding of the UFO phenomenon invokes stories of Star People, who, at first glance, seem to be as humanoid as any Venusian. These paradoxes pose new questions and open curious avenues of investigation regarding the globality of the UFO phenomenon and the equally global extent of the society whose technoscientific character the ETH might be said to reflect and affirm.

The theme, as poet Walt Whitman would say, has vista. The belief in ETI is itself paradoxical in character:  it is both widely-held (by more than half the population in the US, UK, and Germany) but thought unserious, fit only to inspire light entertainments or crackpot obsessions. Yet, as the psychoanalytic study of the trivial shows, the margin reflects the deepest concerns of the centre; indeed, that these concerns are exiled as flaky is precisely a sign of their gravity. The ETH symptomatically expresses profound aspects of human self-regard that have equally grave consequences for social behaviour.

 

Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO

In the Preface to the First English Edition of his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, Jung writes

…I have made an interesting and quite unexpected discovery. 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.

Surely the same holds true today. For the general public, whether UFO sightings are in fact on the down- or up-swing, they are reported on in some part of the world daily, and dramatic sightings (e.g., the Nimitz Encounter) are given press both proper to and amplifying their singularity. This ready fascination extends to the belief in Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI):  astronomical anomalies (e.g., the Fast Radio Bursts recently recorded by a radio telescope in Canada or the recent passage of the Oumuamua object through the solar system) seem invariably to evoke some reference to ETI, even jokingly, while the entertainment industry and its audience never seem to tire of fictions inspired by what ufologists term the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), that UFOs are spaceships piloted by almost invariably humanoid ETIs. Even in the rarefied world of ufologists and ufophiles the ETH along with vast, complex speculative universes inspired by insider testimony stirs an inordinate amount of interest compared to more careful if not sceptical “scientific ufology” or psychosocial approaches to the phenomenon. This drama is presently being staged after a fashion in the reception of History’s Project Blue Book. The series premiere was well-received by those who find in it their fascination with the reality of flying saucers and the suppression of the truth of ET visitation played out (again), while “serious” ufologists have for the most part proven vociferously critical of the dramatic freedoms the series has taken with the historical facts.

jung
Carl Jung

“This… surely merits the psychologist’s interest” Jung went on to write concerning this tendency. In pursuing a purely psychological angle, Jung adopts a quasi-phenomenological approach, bracketing the question of the being, reality or nature of the UFO to concentrate on its purely immanent, subject-oriented, if not subjective, meaning. Jung was able to have insights and draw conclusions independent of any claims concerning the ontological status of the UFO. In taking this approach, he sets an example for psychologists, sociologists, and researchers in related disciplines or of like orientation to explore the psychosocial aspects of the UFO phenomenon independent of controversies about whether or not “the flying saucers are real”. This dimension of the UFO phenomenon apart from the question of the reality of UFOs might be termed “the UFO Effect”.

Despite adopting this phenomenological stance, Jung’s position was also curiously (if sagely) ambivalent, for, at points, he ventures the possibility that UFO sightings and close encounters might find their explanation in purely psychological, if nonpathological, terms. He refers to what he sees as analogous occurrences, collective visions experienced by soldiers in the First World War and, more problematically, by thousands of witnesses at Fatima. In attempting to explain the reality or nature of the UFO as ultimately a purely subjective if possibly collective phenomenon, he sets ufology on the path to the Psychosocial Hypothesis. This “psychosocial ufology” as practiced embryonically by Jung, then, has two arms, one that explores the UFO Effect, another that seeks to solve the UFO mystery by explaining its nature in terms immanent to the psyche, society, and culture; the UFO is not caused by a real object but by subjective mechanisms, personal or communal. Jung, of course, also kept an open mind as to whether or not the flying saucers might not prove to be real objects, as well.

483px-donald_howard_menzel_portrait
Donald H. Menzel

Nevertheless, the line of argument developed by sceptics and debunkers around the time Jung was thinking about and writing on the Flying Saucers might be understood as a version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis. Sighting reports of UFOs and close encounters were not so much explained as explained away as being so many misidentifications, hallucinations, or outright hoaxes inspired by the anxieties of the early Cold War, i.e., UFOs were not real, physical objects, but various errors and failings on the side of the human observer or agent. The efforts of the sceptics make common cause with what I will call “scientific ufology”, not so much because of the latter’s methods of research (which only rarely approach the scientific) but because of the focus and assumptions of that research. The scientific ufologist seeks either to solve or dissolve the mystery of the UFO by discovering or otherwise determining one or more identifiable entities (objects) that explain it, to make the Unidentified Flying Object into an identified object or set of objects. Tendencies in scientific ufology echo Jung’s experience: the ETH “suits the general opinion”, while more cautious, careful research receives short shrift from the general public or derisive rejection institutionally to the point that most of it might be said to be pursued by an “Invisible College”, though with some exceptions.

 

J. Allen Hynek (l) & Jacques Vallée (r)

The psychologically interesting way the fascination, if not belief, in the reality of the UFO—what I will term “ufophilia”—takes precedence over more sceptical approaches reveals how ufological (if not more general) interest in the phenomenon orbits the question, as it might have been posed in Jung’s day, “Are the flying saucers real?”. But this question cannot be said to govern ufology as a whole, i.e., the field is not accurately divided between what is characterized here as the psychosocial and scientific approaches to the question of UFO reality. A distinction that would schematize the field rigorously would distinguish those who pose the question of UFO reality from those who do not, i.e., those who seek to identify or otherwise explain the UFO (let me call them “UFO Realists”), those who take the UFO as the object of their research, as opposed to those who bracket the question of the reality of the UFO altogether, the phenomenological ufologist, whose object of investigation is the UFO Effect. A rigorous division of the field is therefore one based not on method but object.

One consequence of this reorganization of the field is that it inverts the valuation of the “the general opinion”. Where “the general opinion” is most concerned with the reality of the UFO, phenomenological ufology is focussed exclusively on the UFO Effect. Indeed, the ufophilia of “the general opinion” is itself an aspect of the UFO Effect, a topic for (methodologically phenomenological) psychosocial research. Moreover, by extension, scientific ufology, as a ufophilic institutional (or para-institutional) practice and discourse, is itself yet another aspect of the UFO Effect. UFO Realism is therefore subsumed by the UFO Effect. It, further, follows that phenomenological ufology is itself part of the UFO Effect, entailing the possibility of, if not a duty to, a philosophical self-regard, a demand inessential (though not without value) to investigations focussed on UFO reality. An unsettling irony is implied:  where the ufophile and scientific ufologist, UFO Realists both, focus on an object whose objective reality and nature remain questionable and mysterious, unreal until proven real, the object of the phenomenological ufologist (the UFO Effect) is unquestionably real. The one seeks the real and misses it, while the other surrenders the real and finds it. In this regard, the generally held prejudice that values the natural sciences and STEM over the social sciences and humanities is overturned. As the existing scholarly literature shows, it is in fact possible to study the UFO in its guise as the UFO Effect in the disciplines of anthropology, cultural studies, ethnology, history, political science, psychology, religious studies, or sociology whereas to pose the question of UFO reality in the natural sciences is by far and away anathema.

edward_u._condon
Edward. U. Condon

But are researchers in these disciplines the French conveniently call les sciences humaines in fact “phenomenological” in the way I sketch here? Hardly! John A. Saliba describes the situation in his still-valuable study “UFO Contactee Phenomena from a Sociopsychological Perspective” (1995):

The disagreement between sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists on the one hand, and ufologists and UFO contactees on the other, is both theoretical and methodological. Like natural scientists, behavioral scientists cannot accept the flying saucer theory because it has not been verified by or subjected to definite empirical and objective tests. In other words, they can study UFO reports and analyze human psychological conditions, but not the objects and sightings that are said to have triggered the experiences that led to the reports. Ufologists do not follow rigid procedures that are universally accepted in the scientific world. They unfortunately leave the impression that they are relying more on the individual’s subjective experience… (238)

Saliba’s estimate of the situation is revealingly accurate. He distinguishes behavioural scientists from ufologists and UFO contactees based upon their respective rejection and acceptance of the “flying saucer theory”, i.e., the ETH. However, self-professed scientific ufologists, J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée, had already explicitly rejected the ETH in the 1970s. Moreover, the statement that the behavioural scientist “can study UFO reports …, but not the objects and sightings that are said to have triggered the experiences that led to the reports,”  ironically echoes a statement from the Preface to Vallée’s first book, 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)

The scholars Saliba describes collapse all interest in the UFO phenomenon into a ufophilic belief in the ETH. In doing so, they seem to be more subject to currents in the the UFO Effect than the evidence and conclusions mustered by those with orthodox training and institutional positions who have engaged in the precarious, preliminary work of a scientific ufology:  astronomers (Hynek), physicists (James E. McDonald, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter A. Sturrock), polymaths (Vallée), and others. This prejudice has arguably more to do with the social history of the UFO, the concerted efforts of the US government to discredit all serious interest in the phenomenon, that reached its climax with the 1968 Condon Report. Peter Sturrock’s reaction to reading it is telling: “…far from supporting Condon’s conclusions, I thought the evidence presented in the report suggested that something was going on that needed study.” Nevertheless, the deep-seated, orthodox rejection of the matter need not be mendacious, as it likely was in the case of Condon et al.; Jung himself, as is well-known, adopted a sceptical stance, for which he had good reason:

as is abundantly clear from the contradictory and ‘impossible’ assertions made by the rumour. It is quite right that they should meet with criticism, scepticism, and open rejection, and if anyone should see behind them nothing more than a phantasm that deranges the minds of men and engenders rationalistic resistances, he would have nothing but our sympathy. (107)

Indeed, the majority of what would pass itself off as ufology surely deserves the harsh dismissiveness Saliba’s scholars share with Jung.

Is it the case, then, that “the general opinion” and UFO research, whether conducted by the human or natural sciences, is actually organized according to how one answers the question of UFO Reality? Yes and no. Materially, in fact, because of the modern history of the phenomenon and its reception (the UFO Effect in all its aspects) public and scholarly opinion on the matter seems to come down to an acceptance or rejection of the ETH. Such would polls and the sometimes stated positions of institutional researchers tell us, a curious fact of the UFO Effect that calls for investigation itself. In principle, conceptually, however, an argument can be made (as above) to orient research around one’s stance to the question of UFO Reality, i.e., whether or not one asks it at all, not one’s answer.

The modern history of the UFO and that of Jung’s and Vallée’s engagements with the phenomenon are instructive. The beginning of the modern era is marked by the USAF’s investigative projects (Sign, Grudge, and Bluebook), which tangled with both the question of the reality and nature of the flying dics and their social implications, in terms of propaganda and psychological warfare. Jung begins with a sceptical approach that reveals a manifold psychological content, but he ends having to admit the possibility of the flying saucers’ being real. Vallée begins as a scientific ufologist, curious to investigate the physical reality and nature of the phenomenon, but comes to realize the equal importance and mystery of the UFO Effect, from which point his work proceeds along both tracks. Ufology, then, if not “the general opinion,” might be said to have a positive and negative pole:  the UFO Effect as a plenum of constantly growing data, ready and ripe for new research; the UFO Reality as a question, a space, a maw with a seemingly bottomless appetite for new speculations.

hall of mirrors

Addendum:  (And Speaking Philosophically…)

In principle, I can see no reason a researcher in the human sciences need take a stance on the reality and nature of the UFO, however true it is that they in fact do. That a phenomenological ufology should at the same time necessarily or tacitly take a stance with regard to UFO Reality would reveal a philosophically pleasing deconstructive (in a rigorous sense) symmetry (the attempt to articulate which first motivated this post), but I cannot at present imagine a sufficiently persuasive argument in this direction. It is however tempting to propose that scientific ufology and phenomenological ufology are related in a way that is perhaps premissed on analogy to the post-Kantian understanding of Reality and Knowledge, Being and Judgement or Consciousness:  the Realists wrestle over the nature of the UFO as a thing-in-itself, necessarily, in order to debate the question at all (is there an objective correlate to the content of reported sightings and encounters?), repressing, ironically, the phenomenality of the object of their contentions if not investigations (the UFO Effect), while the ufological phenomenologists risk a strict, methodological idealism that would drain the being ([objective] reality) from the thing-in-itself that is, ironically, the condition for the phenomenon in the the first place. But this is to say too much too quickly. One can imagine, very roughly, too, a para-Lacanian view….