The Mindbending Singularity of the UFO Anomaly

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

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

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

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

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

AFRA09

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

Idle minds are the conspiracy theorist’s workshop…

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

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

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

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

Remember:  you read it here, first.

 

The Radical Romanticism of the Anomalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

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

 

New book from David Halperin–get it now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SKUNKWORKS

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

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

The second is from Basel 1566, here.

Illustrations attached [viewable at the link, above].

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

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

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

 

ART HISTORY DEPARTMENT, THE INVISIBLE COLLEGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SKUNKWORKS

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

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

 

ART HISTORY DEPARTMENT, THE INVISIBLE COLLEGE

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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