With all due respect (and in good humour) to Curt Collins, there’s poetry and there’s doggerel; some of the latter is surely better forgotten!
Interested readers can see what I mean over at Collins’ The Saucers That Time Forgot.
With all due respect (and in good humour) to Curt Collins, there’s poetry and there’s doggerel; some of the latter is surely better forgotten!
Interested readers can see what I mean over at Collins’ The Saucers That Time Forgot.
I tend to being caustically critical of folks who don’t do their homework, and, as is only just, I have fallen prey to a failing I loathe.
Thanks to no little impetus from M. J. Banias, I essayed some thoughts on UFOs and hyperreality, developing a fourfold distinction between the real, the Real, the hyperreal, and the hyporeal. I noticed after publishing these reflections, one reader of Skunkworks had followed a hyperlink in a previous posting of mine to an article on Mysterious Universe by Robbie Graham, “UFOs: Fact, Fantasy, and Hyperreality”, a version of the conclusion to his 2015 book Silver Screen Saucers. I therefore address here Graham’s treatment of this topic, in the spirit of intellectual honesty and rigor, and to give credit where credit is due.
First, I attempt to reconstruct his views on UFOs, mass media (particularly cinema or the televisual), and the hyperreal as coherently and persuasively as I can….
Graham derives a version of the hyperreal via a genealogy that begins with Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which then descends by way of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle to arrive at Jean Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacrum, the locus classicus of the concept of the hyperreal (though, strictly, Baudrillard first essays the idea in his earlier book, Symbolic Exchange and Death). Graham’s own understanding is expressed very hastily; he synthesizes Benjamin, Debord, and the Wikipedia entry on ‘Hyperreality’ (hardly the most trustworthy authority), in a single sentence:
Technologies of reproduction (mechanical and digital) have ushered in the age of the hyperreal, an age where simulations of reality threaten to dissolve the boundaries between “fact” and “fantasy,” between “true” and “false,” “real” and “imaginary.”
This “age of the hyperreal” emerges from the conditions of the society of the spectacle, which Graham characterizes as one wherein
…“the real world changes into simple images… and the simple images become real.” In our spectacular society [sic], said Debord, “the image matters more than the object, in fact, much more so than mere objective truth.” The image replaces the truth – it is truth, it is reality.
Such hyperbolically paradoxical claims—that reality becomes image; images, real; that they replace truth and reality; that the distinctions between fact and fantasy, true and false, and real and imaginary threaten to collapse—call for some explanation, let alone support, which I imagine Graham sees himself as providing in the remainder of his text, which sets out his main contention that
cinematic simulations of UFOlogical history have all but consumed the history itself through the process of replication, just as humans were consumed and replicated as pod people in genre classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
This “process of replication” and replacement depends upon the power of cinema and how the medium takes up and presents “real” ufological material. For Graham, UFOs “are ‘real,’ … they exist independently of cinema, and of pop-culture”; UFO phenomena precede their pop cultural representation, and, even in the absence of this representation “people would continue to report UFOs.” Cinematic fictions are therefore based on ufological facts (“art imitates life”); however, because of the artistic license taken with these facts and the power, aesthetic and social, of the medium, the public perception of the “real” phenomenon is distorted if not replaced by its fictional versions.
Graham’s insight turns on the power he grants the cinematic medium:
Movies masquerade as the final word on a given topic. No matter what the subject, and regardless of how much that subject has already been written about and debated, once it is committed to film—once it has received the full Hollywood treatment—it is embedded firmly and forever into the popular consciousness. Imprinted on our psyche. Plunged into the deep wells of memory and imagination.
This power is troubling, since cinema “imprints” on its audience not the truth of reality but “at best, reflections of …reality, snapshots of it, simulations of it, skewed and distorted through the ideological framework of those who have made them.”
Based on these premises, Graham analyzes the general process of hyperrealization into three phases. First, authentic, true, real ufological material is simulated in some popular medium (film, television, or “video games, comic books, etc.”). Second, the audience receives this simulation and is consequently subject to the workings of popular media by which the source material, “ufological reality” “is masked and perverted”. Finally, “reality and simulation are experienced as without difference, or rather, the image has come to mean more … than any underlying reality.”
He summarizes the process thusly:
Essentially, then, the hyperreality of the UFO phenomenon has arisen primarily through processes of mass media simulation. The blurring of true and false, real and imaginary, through that most magical of mediums (cinema), and within the context of that most fantastical of genres (science fiction), engenders our acceptance of the UFO as just that: a fictional media construct with little or no grounding in our lived historical reality. And yet, thanks to their permanent residency in the popular imagination, UFOs are no less real to us as a result.
To paraphrase: I take Graham to mean that the mass media exploitation of ufological material—its re-presentation, reproduction, and proliferation—overwhelms the preexisting, real-world sightings and encounters, drowning out and replacing that UFO reality in the public imagination. Because the ufological thereby becomes in the first instance a matter of fantasy and more-or-less light entertainment, whatever gravity the real-world phenomenon might possess is coloured by its media representation in advance, prejudicing its reception. In this way, the representation takes precedence over the represented.
I find Graham’s basic point, as paraphrased above, persuasive; however, there are some nits to pick and more major implications to unfold. A slight parody of Marshall McLuhan’s famous pairing will organize our critique according the media and their messages.
The aesthetic and social power of cinema in particular and mass media in general are central to Graham’s views. On the one hand, he’s surely correct to stress the power of the medium, the way the audience, especially when films were generally viewed on a big screen, can lose itself in the film, like a dream, as director David Lynch so eloquently remarks, a potential that also inspires directors as different as Quentin Tarantino and Guy Madden, following the example of Benjamin’s contemporary, Bertolt Brecht, to adopt techniques precisely to break that trance. But is it true that movies pretend to give “the final word on a given topic,” that once a subject “is committed to film it is embedded firmly and forever into the popular consciousness”? Here, I think Graham overstates his case to drive home the way cinematic representations can take on a life, truth and reality of their own, e.g., the image of the Wild West (ironically returned to an explicitly fictional status by that sleeper of recent years, Gore Verbinksi’s The Lone Ranger). More importantly, however, is the way that paradoxical active passivity of the audience in its suspension of disbelief is passed over in silence: like the subject of hypnosis, the audience must want to enter the cinematic or other world presented by the medium where it then becomes subject to its influence; the effects of media on their audiences are less one-way than Graham’s characterizations would admit.
Moreover, Graham places too much importance on the cinematic or televisual media. Surely, when Kenneth Arnold made his historic sighting report, print media (where it first appeared) still held its own against Hollywood. Within two decades the small screen of the television was giving the big screen a run for its money. Within a generation, the internet and digital media began their revolutionary drive to dominance, and now, twenty or so years later, the smart phone is the the premiere medium. Admittedly, the proliferation of such essentially televisual media strengthen Graham’s case for the insidious influence of popular culture. However, at the same time, he underestimates or discounts the popular culture presence of UFO and alien imagery preceding Arnold’s monumental sighting, as scholars and skeptics as diverse as David Halperin and Martin S. Kottmeyer would be glad to point out with gusto. In a telling, figurative slip, Graham himself seems to grasp that other media decentre cinema, when he writes that cinema provides only “snapshots” of reality; the older, static medium of photography intrudes synecdochally into the characterization of its newer, dynamic competitor if not replacement, both as its forerunner and essential element (pre-digital “film” being a sequence of still shots…).
Here, the artefactual record is the first to rub against his assertion that the UFO phenomenon precedes and transcends its popular cultural representations. More seriously, his three-phase process is curiously atemporal and abstract. The UFO witness is no blank slate, but oriented within and informed by culture, just as Hollywood is guided not only by existing artistic conventions and material conditions (funding, market, audience expectations, etc.) but by the canon of existing UFO/alien depictions, which themselves become material to be reproduced or transcended (by new material or radically different depictions and development). In other words, there is no immaculate UFO experience not already influenced by popular culture, just as there is no pure cinematic medium untouched by tradition or the present that takes up this experience as material. The experience and its mass cultural representations are always already mutually implicated.
Most importantly, there is marked tension between the claims that “reality and simulation are experienced as without difference” and that the “real” UFO experience precedes and transcends its variegated pop cultural simulations. Graham goes to great lengths to maintain that, on the one hand, art imitates life, that “art” masks and perverts “life” (otherwise he couldn’t mount his criticisms of the way the media of mass culture undermine and overthrow UFO reality in the popular understanding and imagination), while, on the other, the society of the spectacle and our hyperreal present “dissolve the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fantasy,’ between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’.” Uncharitably, we could accuse Graham of incoherence and move on, but a more informed understanding might argue his thinking has fallen prey to a process that bedevils not only attempts to maintain a rigid binary opposition but, in this case, to collapse such oppositions. In either case, the very logic that would oppose two terms, if rigorously followed through, will show how each inseparably implicates the other, while here, the logic that would dissolve difference inescapably reinscribes it.
Graham’s main insight, that UFO reality is displaced both in its character (its “image”) and import (meaning) by its mass cultural fictional representations is well-taken, to a point. What’s absent is a more profound appreciation for how the UFO phenomenon is caught up in mass media in general, whether factual or fictional, and how both the “real” experience of the phenomenon and its representation in whatever medium mutually inform each other at the source. The conflict, then, is not so much between life and art as between competing media representations. Graham’s argument is premissed on Baconian, pre-semiotic (strictly, pre-1800!) assumptions about representation, that a self-sufficient, ready-made world precedes and transcends our perceptions and representations of it, whose accuracy depends upon how closely they correspond to their original.
More seriously, the question as to why the “real” phenomenon is perverted in just the ways it is needs be addressed (which, I believe, is part of the purpose of the book his reflections on the hyperreality of the UFO conclude). One answer would point to the commodity form, the way under capitalism everything imaginable is harvested, processed, packaged, and marketed, from DNA to data. This reflection might reveal why representations of either the “real” phenomenon or its fictional representations mask, pervert, “skew and distort” the UFO, not “through the ideological framework” of those who produce these factual or fictional representations, but precisely because of or as the ideology within which the UFO is encountered and that encounter communicated (sold).
As a thought experiment, assume the truth of a version of what I’ll call here, however inexactly and for my own purposes, tha Psychosocial Hypothesis, that all UFO sightings and entity encounters are nothing more than misperceptions, reports, rumours, stories, hallucinations, hoaxes, everything that adds up to the UFO mythology, that UFOs are witnessed and reported, entities seen and encountered, the whole phenomenon taken seriously at times even by the world’s militaries, only because the ubiquitous “visionary rumour”, as Jung called it, is a self-sustaining process: the rumour inspires misperceptions and fantasies, which maintain and propel the myth into the future. In this scenario, UFO reality turns out to be precisely and exclusively a spontaneous, collective, variegated (inconsistent) mythology, arguably an expression of the anxieties and compensatory fantasies (aspirations) of the present moment of our (capitalist) technological society and culture. In this case, is UFO reality nothing? Not at all.
The claim that the workings of the psyche and culture are nothing, subjective rather than objective and therefore unreal, of no account, makes the same error because it shares the same assumptions as those who dismiss the UFO as unreal because it is “only” a product of the individual or collective psyche.
Those who would suffer a loss of faith if they accepted what I call the Psychosocial Hypothesis above, if the UFO, like God, were to die, and those who express their skepticism regarding the reality of the UFO by affirming this theory are both, in a sense, positivists: they believe consciously or otherwise that whatever is “subjective” is unreal, because it is ultimately explainable in “objective” terms from an impersonal, third-party point-of-view by those natural sciences whose epistemological and metaphysical commitments are some version of physicalism (that only what is grasped and articulated by physics is real) or scientific realism.
First, one needs disabuse oneself of the vulgar confusion of the subjective with the idiosyncrasies of the individual, personal soul or psyche. Though I’m the first to resist the recently fashionable talk of the Death of the Subject (roughly, that the subjective is nothing more than an effect of impersonal social forces, such as language), it remains the case the subject is no self-enclosed, immaculate, solipsistic space. If the reality of the UFO is not physical but cultural, it is hardly “only” subjective, hardly a creation ex nihilo by the artistic genius of a personal Unconscious singular as the Abrahamic God, but is rather a condensation, rearticulation, and transformation of existing cultural materials no less “real” (impersonal, public, objective) than the putative physical reality of the UFO.
Those who would lose interest in the whole issue were the physical reality of the UFO taken off the table suffer a kind of fetishism. They imbue a Golden Calf they themselves have cast with a deity (reality) and when this hypostasized power is revealed as illusory, their cosmos is desecrated and empty. What has captured the interest of thinkers and scholars from Carl Jung to Thomas Bullard and even those with some investment in some version of UFO reality, such as Jacques Vallée or Jeffrey Kripal, is that the UFO phenomenon from an “atheist” perspective, that of a non-believer, still presents us with the rare spectacle of a folklore, mythology, or religion in the making. Little wonder then some of those moved to devote their lives to the disciplined study of such things focus their attention on the “visionary rumour” that has infiltrated the world’s imagination over the decades following the the Second World War. Imagine being able to bring to bear all the refined methodologies of the human sciences in a first-hand manner to the emergence of Christianity from the foment of the Gnostic context in the Near East two thousand years ago (regardless of the historical reality of Jesus), or those innumerable Gnostic sects themselves, or to observe the process of the emergence of Buddhism (aside from the literal truth of the moment of enlightenment under the banyan tree or the Buddha’s suicide by mushroom). To discount or disparage curiosity over such things is simply coarse and narrow.
If we turn from the speculation that the UFO is strictly a psychosocial phenomenon, lacking physical objecthood to another, that the UFO is physically real, either in a way our physics can grasp or not, does the psychosociocultural reality examined above become of no account? Not at all.
Consider just two examples. Beginning with Passport to Magonia (1969) and more overtly in The Invisible College (1975) and Messengers of Deception (1979), Jacques Vallée’s conjectures moved away from the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis to a variety of more provocative possibilities. Aside from the exploitation of the mythology by the founders of New Religious Movements (such as the International Raelian Movement or, more notoriously, Heaven’s Gate), military and intelligence services (explored in his Revelations (1993)), and shadowier private groups, Vallée has maintained a belief in a reality to the phenomenon that, however, is not what it seems. One theme that runs through his reflections in this regard is that UFO sightings and related entity encounters are staged to effect human belief and culture. He evokes this scenario in the opening pages of his science-fiction novel Fastwalker (1996) where a military agency abducts a primitive from New Guinea and shows him Star Wars in a state of altered awareness. As I’ve been led to suggest elsewhere (here and here), if we accept Vallée’s theses concerning how both human and nonhuman agents manipulate the myth, then bringing the human sciences to bear on how the myth might function would reveal no less “real” effects than those physical ones listed in the 2003 paper Vallée co-authored with Eric Davis, “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”.
If we turn to an even more orthodox if less compelling view, that espoused by agitators for Disclosure, that governments around the world make public all they know about the phenomenon and official contact and relations with extraterrestrials (ETs), then the reality of the psychosociocultural dimension is even more pronounced. In A.D.: After Disclosure (2012), co-authored by Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel, the authors speculate that revelations of both the physical reality of ETs and decades-long relations with them would shatter and remake every major social institution: politics, economics, science, religion, and culture (a thesis that would have been lent some weight had they grounded their imaginings in at least some scholarship relevant to their claims or the institutions they see effected…).
I am not arguing here for an exclusively “psychosocial” approach to the UFO mystery, or even that such an angle of engagement might be sufficient in itself for resolving that mystery. What I do maintain is that the relation between the UFO phenomenon and the culture to which or within which it appears is a dialectical one: no phenomenon without something “seen in the skies”, but nothing witnessed without a witness, always situated and oriented in a world always-already articulated, made sense of, by the matrix of culture out of which that witness comes to awareness of reality, of the world, the cosmos, and itself.
One challenging aspect of the UFO / Entity Encounter phenomenon is its protean variety. The ever-new sizes and shapes of UFOs have frustrated attempts to catalogue and schematize them, to the point that skeptics have pointed to this characteristic as proof the phenomenon lacks objective reality. Likewise, the equally wild diversity of related entities, whether apparent Extraterrestrials (ETs) , Bigfoot, Elves and Faeries, the Blessed Virgin Mary, etc. has been used to argue for their subjective basis in the theorizing of, e.g., Jose Caravaca.
A little reflection, however, introduces a dialectical complication: if UFOs and entities vary so much from one another that each sighting or encounter is radically, singularly different, how is it possible that any of these phenomena are experienced as UFOs, ETs, Sasquatch, Faeries, angels or demons, etc. in the first place? How to square the tension between the undeniable theme of sameness in the equally observable variation from encounter to encounter? The structuralist linguistics provisionally set forth by Ferdinand de Saussure that inspired the later development of semiology and semiotics is suggestive in this regard.
In attempting to put linguistics on a scientific basis, Saussure made a number of salient distinctions. The phenomenon under investigation was first divided into what in French are termed parole and langue, usually translated as speech and language. Parole or speech is the empirical, sensuous aspect of language, while langue or language is the abstract system of rules that underwrites the possibility of the sounds, marks, and gestures of parole functioning as a language, as meaningful, in the first place.
Language-as-linguistic-structure is composed of signs, from phonemes or graphemes to syntagma (but not, curiously, words), and the rules for their combination and mutual interchangeability (replacement). What is essential to Saussure’s account is that speech (parole) is concrete, sensuous, empirical, while language (langue) is abstract, conceptual. The sign is a unit composed of two parts, a signifier and a signified (which is where a tradition of fateful misunderstanding arises that flows down to the present, wide and deep…).
When I hear or read a linguistic utterance, an instance of parole, what Saussure termed a phonic or graphic chain, I must hear or read it as a sequence of signs (the sounds of a language (phonemes), the symbols of a written language, etc.). Empirical reality, however, as philosophers have reminded us since before Plato, is, in the words of William James, “a bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion.” No phonic chain is ever acoustically the same from instance to instance: it’s louder, softer, faster, slower, etc.. For an utterance to function linguistically, an auditor must make an educated guess as to its significance (“Was that ‘catch’ or ‘cash’?”), i.e., posit a signified, a concept, which invokes the recognition of a linguistic type (a signifier) whereby the empirical, unrepeatable phonic or graphic chain of parole becomes an instance of a sign or combination of signs, whereby understanding (meaning, semantics) becomes possible at all. Saussure’s fundamental insight here is that were language only its sensuous, empirical, nonrepeatable aspect, then language as we in fact experience and speak it in its characteristically iterable structures would not exist.
The analogy to the problem of the protean character of the UFO and entities, how they can both differ radically from encounter to encounter yet still present sufficient consistencies to be recognized as this rather than that at all, is (perhaps) clear. Individual sightings and encounters, like the particular perception of any empirical particular, whether the cats in my neighbourhood or the sounds out of my partner’s mouth, will always be different, akin to parole. However, for them to enter experience at all, as Misster Kitty, the words “I love you”, or Sasquatch emerging from a flying saucer to abduct a calf with its pet Chupacabra, they must be subject to an interpretive, conceptual process, analogous to the functioning of langue.
The empirical differences between sighted UFOs and entities encountered speaks against a unified reality underwriting them no more than the sensuous variegation of parole mitigates against langue, that system of concepts (signifieds) and schematic “images” (signifiers), which underwrites the very possibility of the apprehension of speech as such in the first place. This analogy, furthermore, speaks to the potential possibility of a semiology of UFOs or entity encounters, an approach that, suspending questions of the ontology of what is meaningfully perceived, focusing on the conditions for that meaning in the first place, would be amenable to either a realist ufology (e.g., especially that proposed by Jacques Vallée) or a purely sociological one concerned with the strictly, “fictional” mythological significance of the phenomena in question.
Sequoyah Kennedy over at Mysterious Universe brings to our attention a sighting of a “dancing fireball” over Northhampton, England. Aside from the startling strangeness of the sighting itself, the reaction of one witness, Luke Pawsey, 20, is no less thought-provoking:
I genuinely believe there’s extraterrestrial life out there but we’re just not aware of it or we’re too naive to think there isn’t anything out there. I think it’s an unidentified flying object (UFO) but when people imagine that they think of a spaceship which I don’t think it was. But how do we know what’s out there, especially if it doesn’t exist to us? It could be aliens but I don’t want to say for certain as I don’t know.
Pawsey is clear-headed enough not to identify “UFO” with “alien spaceship”, but it’s telling the way his quoted words here leap immediately to that all-too-common reflexive theory and orbit the constellation of related ideas: “extraterrestrial life”, “UFO”, “spaceship”, and “aliens”.
Had this fireball been witnessed in 1019 rather than 2019, a chronicler of the time might have recorded it as a dragon or sign from heaven, as either a natural or supernatural occurrence, rather than extraterrestrial or unknown. This speculation prompts at least two questions: first, why doesn’t the modern witness imagine he has seen, say, some natural, albeit strange, phenomenon, or something man-made, such as some unusual fireworks, and, second, if the category “unknown” was even available to our imagined, medieval scribe, given the closed world he lived in, in contrast to the one opened to scientific investigation by the withdrawal or death of God (here, the theological interpretation of the world). (Curious, how a world with little knowledge of nature might at the same time also lack the unknown, while one in which such knowledge becomes possible and actual simultaneously allows the admission of ignorance). Also significant is how both posit a potentially extramundane origin, but, for the premodern, “out-of-this-world” means outside of nature, time and space, whereas for the modern it means within the cosmos, from however exotic a locale (e.g., another dimension). At any rate, what is true for both is that the witness to an anomalous experience seeks to make sense of it in the first instance according to an existing set of categories, a set that varies over time and place.
If the Northhamptom fireball had not behaved in so puzzling a way, but had traced a more-or-less straight, regular vector, an astronomer, for example, would have readily identified it as a meteor. The difference between the astronomer’s perception and the mystified one of Pawsey and our fictional scribe can be illuminated by a rough-and-ready reference to a distinction made by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He distinguishes between two kinds of “judgement” (Urteilen, in German), two ways the subject and predicate of a thought or statement might be joined (e.g., “The fireball [subject] is luminous [predicate]”). A determinative judgement brings a particular intuition (e.g., the luminous body depicted above) under a general rule (the features of a meteor), while a reflective judgement, lacking a general rule for a particular intuition (e.g., the unusual fireball seen by Pawsey), needs to either discover, find or invent, a general rule. The mystified reaction to an anomalous experience is in a sense the bewilderment brought about by the lack of concept that would categorize the experience or otherwise make sense of it, which inspires the imagination’s excited search over a chain of possibilities: “What is that? This or this or this or this…?”
This approximate application of Kant’s distinction is not especially illuminating, as far as it goes, until we introduce what motivates it. Kant brings the notion of the reflective judgement to bear (in a much more nuanced and complex way than I do here) in his Critique of Judgement, his discussion of the perception of the beautiful in art and nature. Neither the work of art, the sublime landscape, or even an organism in its purposiveness (the way it seems designed for its place in nature) are objects of knowledge the way the instantiation of a natural law is (the subject of a determinative judgement), rather each needs be grasped in their respective singularity. The work of art’s demanding an active engagement for its understanding and appreciation (especially since the advent of artistic Modernism in more or less the Nineteenth century), that we discover, find or invent new concepts proper to it, gives art the purchase to reconfigure or re-articulate the concepts we use to understand the world in general, whereby art can be said to provide a kind of knowledge or truth, reminding us that seeing as is at least as important as the is of identification of the sciences, if not at its foundation. The implication for anomalous experience is obvious: like the work of art the anomalous experience demands at least a reconfiguration of existing knowledge if not the development of new concepts and hypotheses.
Admittedly, not much has been said here that would essentially differentiate Pawsey’s experience from that of the first European to encounter a platypus. In both cases, something that fails to fit our existing scheme of things demands that scheme be revised, expanded and rearticulated. Kant develops the notion of the reflective judgement not only to make sense of the beautiful but of induction, too. It thus has a function both in our knowledge of nature (where it leads to determinative judgements) and culture, which argues for the thesis that the anomalous UFO phenomenon, specifically and especially, be tackled not only as a challenge to (natural) science or to the social sciences (what the French term les sciences humaines et sociales) but both. That is, it is both a potential object of knowledge and understanding and that the collaboration if not synthesis of what we might term the Symbolic orders of the natural and human sciences is demanded of the phenomenon itself. That is, a key to understanding the UFO phenomenon might be to approach it as much as an aesthetic object as an object to be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method.
We have arrived, therefore, at the same point, though via a different route, as my reflections about the implications of thinking the UFO as “postmodern”. The proposal that the UFO phenomenon in general might usefully be approached in a radically interdisciplinary manner dovetails into more-or-less explicit positions taken in the 2003 paper co-authored between Jacques Vallée and Eric Davis “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”. There Vallée and Davis call for both physics, experimental and theoretical, and semiotics to be be brought to bear on the manifold strangeness of the phenomenon. An implication of Vallée’s repeated idea that the phenomenon of the UFO and related entities is in a sense staged to achieve a subliminal, long-term cultural change is that it need be analyzed semiotically, i.e., with a view to grasping it in the first place as a system of meanings, with a syntax and lexicon, i.e., following that pioneer of semiology, Roland Barthes, as a “mythology”.
[“Trigger Warning”: I explore here one implication of the reality, Reality, hyperreality, and hyporeality of the UFO phenomenon sketched here. I refer to this reality of the UFO as “postmodern”, because the discussion takes its initial impulse and orientation from the notion of hyperreality, first developed by that premiere postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Readers triggered by the expression “postmodern” are urged to read the initial post linked above, before going off half-cocked, like a Jordan-Peterson-with-his-head-cut-off…]
In his discussion of 9/11 and related matters, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Žižek characteristically unfolds one dialectical implication of the attack. On one hand, it represents an intrusion of “the Real” into “everyday social reality”: the shock of the Event reorients and reconfigures the settled world we thought we knew and assumed to be fundamentally unchanging. In this assumed stability, “average everydayness” represents a kind of spontaneous, perennial “End of History“. However, on the other, despite all the very real destruction and death (which continues to this day in the various health problems suffered by first responders and others), the perpetrators never believed that felling the Twin Towers or even the Pentagon or White House would bring down America’s economy, military, or government. The attacks were primarily symbolic, intended, in part, to disabuse continental Americans forever of an assumed, invulnerable security, hence comparisons of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. Moreover, for most of the world, the event was purely mediated: in most minds, the attacks now are, in a sense, those obsessively repeated images of the planes hitting the towers or their collapse. In the theatricality and profound mediation of the attacks the effect of the Real becomes hyperreal, a representation, a sign, a meaning, endlessly repeated, echoing out into the future (though hardly without its real world effects).
The UFO phenomenon (including entity encounters) is curious, because it arguably inhabits not only the real (as ubiquitous pop culture meme), but the Real (as a startling and disturbing experience that upsets settled, assumed notions of reality), the hyperreal (as an existing representation whereby an anomalous experience is identified and confirmed as a UFO experience), and the hyporeal (the highly strange that simultaneously outstrips and potentially expands the existing hyperreal repertoire of recognizable UFO phenomena). But what’s salient here is how the dialectic between the UFO’s Reality and hyperreality might parallel the dialectic Žižek unfolds with regard to 9/11.
Jacques Vallée has over decades consistently argued that the provocative irrationality of persistent features of the phenomenon mitigates against the theory that we are dealing with visitors, explorers, or invaders from other planets, dimensions, or times. Such high strangeness, more a characteristic feature of the phenomenon than a site of hyporeal difference, is a mark of its Reality, its dramatic demand we reorient or reconfigure the categories by which we make sense of the world in order to integrate and assimilate the phenomenon’s bizarre behaviour. However, it’s precisely how destructive (if not deconstructive) the phenomenon is of our existing worldview in just this way that stages the phenomenon’s theatricality: the phenomenon is no longer what it appears to be (an alien spaceship surrounded by its crew collecting soil and plant samples, for example) but enacts a meaning beyond itself, i.e., it becomes a sign.
Roland Barthes, in his significantly titled work Mythologies, elucidates just this situation with an example drawn from his “everyday social reality”:
I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.
In the same way that the significance of the sample Latin clause is not the meaning of its constituent words, so the significance of the UFO phenomenon is not its apparent behaviour but what this behaviour might be understood to point to.
To my knowledge the only time Vallée explicitly refers to the discipline of semiotics is in his 2003 paper co-authored with Eric Davis (“Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”). The rigorous implication of Vallée’s longheld thesis concerning the irrational character and behaviour of the phenomenon is that a true understanding is not to be won by the physical sciences but the human sciences, that what is demanded by the phenomenon itself is that it be approached not as an anomalous natural occurrence but a semiotic phenomenon. What is called for, therefore, is not primarily some supplement to or revision of our physics but a semiotics or, following Barthes’ early articulations, a semiology of the UFO mythology.
The desert of the real. Most who might recognize the expression will do so from The Matrix. It was, however, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who coined and invested it with a characteristic, suggestive ambiguity.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts his own spin on the notion in his work on the 9/11 attacks and related matters, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. There, he contrasts “everyday social reality” with that Real that explodes our expectations concerning that “average everydayness”, such as 9/11 or Ernst Jünger’s experience as a storm trooper in the Great War of “face-to-face combat as the authentic intersubjective encounter.” In general, the irruption or intrusion of the Real recasts, redefines, and reconfigures what we had taken for normal or possible or “real”. In this sense, surely, the UFO or Entity encounter, in their disturbing uncanniness, count as such an experience of the Real.
Baudrillard is equally famous (or infamous, depending on who one talks to) for developing the notion of hyperreality (in his work Simulacra and Simulation). In a media-saturated society, the relation between original and copy becomes reversed, where the copy insures the truth of the original, to the point where even talk of originals and copies becomes senseless. American novelist Don DeLillo provides a good example: in his novel about the Kennedy assassination, Libra, a woman in the crowd that has come out to see the president says excitedly, “Oh! He looks just like his pictures!”.
Representations of UFOs and aliens, whether of “authentic” photographs, artists’ renditions, or images endlessly produced by the media of popular culture have proliferated since 1947. In this environment, skeptics are quick to observe, credulous, imaginative, or otherwise fantasy-prone persons, let alone lay people or “well-trained observers” will draw on this image bank to interpret objects they cannot identify: the UFO looks just like its pictures, factual or fictional.
Of course, as the cognoscenti will be quick to reply, UFOs and the entities associated with them demonstrate a wild variation, to the point that any recognizable consistency in their appearance is stretched almost to a breaking point (a thesis held especially by Jose Caravaca). And this observation is surely so, limiting the explanatory power of the skeptic’s argument, above. UFOs and their associated entities sometimes appear with such high strangeness they transcend their existing representations, reinstating their unidentifiable, anomalous character. This singularity (which can get caught up in the subsequent forging of a chain of representations, the process of the production of hyperreality) I propose to call hyporeal, in contrast to Baudrillard’s coinage.
But the UFO and related entities are not to be caught in even so neatly woven a net of terminology. In the way that it inspires awe and terror akin to the numinousity of religious experience forever altering the worldview of the witness or experiencer the UFO is an instance of the Real. In as much as the UFO or entity is recognized as such, resembling its media representations, the UFO sighting or entity encounter is an example of hyperreality. Alternatively, the high strangeness of a sighting or encounter that reinscribes the alien otherness to the phenomenon is a mark of its being hyporeal. However, the UFO and extraterrestrial, being ubiquitous to popular culture, regardless of the specific import of that omnipresence, is an aspect of our “average everydayness”, something the child being raised in a culture learns about, making it no less real than any other thing we encounter in our “everyday social reality”.
[Thanks to MJ Banias for originally provoking reflection on just how Žižek’s thoughts might apply to the UFO.]