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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding these documents, John Greenewald writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots in the Reformation sprout in Postmodernity

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

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

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

“Social existence determines consciousness”:  desperate inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash / Retrieval Syndrome as Visionary Rumour or Folklore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Roots of Post-Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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