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.