Michael Persinger R.I.P.

The one post at Skunkworks that has sparked the most interest was that concerning the Electromagnetic Hypothesis (EMH), that some UFO/UAP sightings and perhaps even encounter experiences could be accounted for by observed but unexplained naturally-occurring EM and plasma phenomena.

One of the major researchers to develop this idea was Michael Persinger, who has died at 73. The Daily Grail has posted an obituary and summary of Persinger’s research and the controversy and criticisms it inspired. Interested parties will be pleased to find at least two videos and links to ten blog posts Persinger wrote in reply to his critics.

As a partial explanation for sightings and encounters, Persinger’s work strictly falls outside the purview of Skunkworks, exploring, as his research does, the being rather than the meaning of the UFO phenomenon. What is compelling, though, is the way his research suggests that the Earth herself might be imagined to communicate with human beings via EM phenomena.

That Flying Saucers arguably reveal more about how we think and feel about technoscience and the fate of society than about extraterrestrial visitors has been a mainstay since Jung’s pioneering speculations. That Contactees and Abductees both have received warnings concerning environmental catastrophe segues nicely with the notion that the Earth articulates her concerns via tectonic energies and an available image reservoir, whether a Collective Unconscious or not. That Earth itself transmits EM energies at 30-33 Hz (an instance of a numerological pattern that runs through the whole mythos) and that these transmissions are called Extra-low Frequency (ELF) waves is also poetically suggestive, especially in view of the links made to Faery lore and the UFO mythology by, among others, Jacques Vallee….

Having recently secured a copy of Persinger’s and Lafrenière’s Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events (Chicago:  Nelson-Hall, 1977) I hope to share a review sometime in the future.

QAnon as (post)modern art

The conspiratorial mindset likely goes back at least as far as the paranoid cosmologies of who-runs-the-world-1the Gnostics two millennia ago. One of its latest iterations is Q or QAnon, a conspiracy theory that in its manner of dissemination, the style of its expression, and the wildness of its content makes it more impressive as an instance of modern art than a revelation of the secret order of the world it pretends to be.

Q appears first 28 October 2017 on /pol/, a sub-board of 4-chan, unwinding a thread titled “Calm Before the Storm” alluding, supposedly, to a remark made by President Trump early that month. The thread’s author claimed to have Q-level security clearance, having access to highly-classified information he then prolifically released in idiosyncratically worded “crumbs” that outlined an increasingly complex and bizarre vision of contemporary world politics, focused on Trump’s battle with the Deep State. Anyone familiar with the Exopolitics and Disclosure movements will also know UFOs and ETs have also been woven into the Q narrative.

Why anyone would take the incoherent and madly speculative worldview Q lays out for the way things really are is as much a psychological or sociological as an epistemic question. However, if one brackets the question of the truth of Q’s revelations, then the trail of crumbs Q has left his public appear as a work of fiction or poetry that meets Rimbaud’s famous demand that “we must be absolutely modern” in remarkable ways.

Adopting a mask or persona, an identity other than the author’s, is an old literary device, intensified for various reasons in the Twentieth Century. Replacing one’s given name with one’s initials became a bit of a fashion among anglophone poets, T. S. Eliot or more radically H.D. being perhaps the best known. Postwar or postmodern poetry probing the implications of the death of the author have worked to compose works wherein the language rather than the author might be said to be what speaks. Q, too, in a not dissimilar manner, adopts a persona, a move with rhetorical affect. This pseudonym, evoking both James Bond and real-world security-clearance designations, lends Q an air of credibility that tellingly draws on both fictional and factual connotations. Moreover, his revelations are made to appear all the more true as their being shared in even such a piecemeal, obscure manner is made to seem to endanger his life. In the conspirosphere it’s an old trick of putative insiders to lend their leaks gravity by their being secret, to whatever degree.

Aside from developing and coining the expression “the death of the author” French critic Roland Barthes also articulated an important distinction, that between “work” and “text”, most fully explored in S/Z. All too simply put, the classical work stands over against the reader as a seamless, polished, finished monumental aesthetic object achieved by the labour of the genius of the author; the text, on the other hand demands as much engagement and work from the reader to complete the aesthetic object. Barthes describes a text as “a galaxy of signifiers” that need be “constellated” by the reader. (Admittedly, the distinction goes back to the Jena Romantics and is roundly deconstructed by Barthes himself in S/Z; nevertheless, it remains valuable in discussing modes of avant garde writing). In this light, QAnon’s conspiracy theory is a text, at both the micro and macro levels.

The theory is articulated by a thread spun of “crumbs”,  a series of short, telegraphic, sometimes encoded lines, that resemble, at least typographically, poems:

Q-Iran-Potus-in-Control

Some lines are complete sentences; others (e.g.,”Suicide watch” or “Bigger than people can imagine”) are more cryptic, demanding an active interpretation. Often, the reader is addressed in the imperative tense (“Ask yourself…”) or is posed questions (“Why is HRC in NZ?”) supposedly to push the reader in a particular, interpretive direction. The lines that make up each crumb are organized paratactically, demanding the reader supply the grammatical and logical  connections that would lend them even a linguistic coherence. These demands on the reader’s engagement reach a limit in encoded crumbs.

Q-Anon-Coded-message

Thus, at the lowest level of composition, the crumb and its components, the theory is very much a text, lent a significant amount of logic and significance by the reader.

At the next higher level of organization, that between crumbs, both consecutively and in general, the same demands are made. Just as each line of a crumb need be understood and each line connected with the other, the revelations of each crumb need be worked up into a coherent whole that is subject to subsequent modification by rereadings of already released crumbs and subject to revision with the release of each day’s new crumbs. The theory is thus in a state of constant flux, an instability exacerbated by the basic incoherence of the crumbs taken individually and as a totality, as well as the added complications added to the mix by contributions to the thread by its readers. The theory then is in a state of constant expansion and complication.

Another characteristic of avant garde art is its interest in exploring and exploiting the latest media technology makes available. In this light, QAnon is strikingly modern, availing itself of the possibilities of the digital medium:  being digital, appearing where it does to address a particular audience, being open-ended both in its own on-going composition and in its readers’ participation. In a more profound way, though, the theory depends on another dimension of our modernity born with digital culture, that of the demand for “transparency” and its consequences. As theorist Stanley Fish eloquently observes, the demand for equal access to data, free of the editorial manipulations of elites or other gatekeepers, produces precisely an informational galaxy of signifiers that are then open to an absolutely “democratic” or anarchic constellation by those with access to it. QAnon’s unwinding story is premissed on precisely this situation, made up as it is of just those bits of data that the thread’s readers in turn organize into a more or less coherent if incomplete picture.

QAnon, then, is a remarkable example of absolutely contemporary ((post)”modern”) art, in its adoption of a pseudonymous persona for rhetorical affect, in its inventing a new genre of linguistic expression (the crumb) that puts to use poetic and rhetorical devices, in its overall organization reminiscent of avant garde literature, and in its very medium and exploitation of various aesthetic possibilities of that medium, all premissed and arising from the media if not epistemic conditions of the age, the ascendancy of data over news and the increasing anarchy of world views and political polarization this shift enables and gives rise to.

Space/Time: a temporally entangled addendum to “…our Descent to Eaarth”

I was reminded that just a year ago I had read this opinion piece by William B. Gail, a founder of the Global Weather Corporation, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, and the author of Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals About Us.

In it, Gail proposes that the ways the climate has and will continue to change from the patterns that nurtured civilization during the Holocene render the earth unrecognizable, requiring that our descendants along with those of all the other plant and animal species must learn to inhabit a radically different planet whose climactic patterns have not only changed but become chaotic and unpredictable. Gail’s speculations here are one might say “temporally entangled” with those I set out in “The Anthropocene as the Beginning of our Descent to Eaarth”.

I share them here for those for whom the more poetic logic of my own recent post might be too wild and who might find Gail’s more down-to-earth musings more grounded.

On the Narcissism of Anthropos

Neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel García, from the University of Cádiz, in an article recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, set out to “explain how our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness… play a major role in [the] search [for] non-terrestrial civilizations … and how they have been neglected up to this date.” (How the researchers managed to neglect the not irrelevant work of Jacques Vallee (from 1990!) or that of Susan Palmer and myself (from nearly twenty years ago) is itself an interesting case of the phenomenon they are investigating….).

Their research concerns inattention blindness, like that demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla Experiment of Chabris and Simons. Following their example, de la Torre and García had 137 subjects distinguish artificial structures from natural features in aerial photographs, one of which contained a tiny gorilla. The complement to attention blindness, the mind’s tendency to perceive pattern in chaos (pareidolia), was addressed as well. The implication of their research is that the SETI focus on electromagnetic signals, in either the visible or invisible spectrums, primes it to miss those evidential “gorillas” that would indicate non-terrestrial civilizations. The pair goes on to propose a tripartite classification of such civilizations, all of which, in general, are characterized by their varying degrees of mastery over forms of matter and energy, whether quantum, gravitational, or dark.

What is ironic is that de la Torre and García have fallen prey to the same prejudices that keep SETI researchers and proponents of the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs from perceiving the intelligent life that swarms around us. As I’ve written elsewhere these prejudices are that intelligent life is intelligent in the way we ourselves conceive ourselves to be, cultural, tool-using creatures capable of mathematical thought and cognizing natural laws that are then exploited technologically, and that such civilizations follow universal paths of linear development toward increasing sophistication, knowledge, and mastery over nature. These prejudices are, arguably, the reification and projection of the history of one culture on earth, namely the one that calls itself the developed world, a culture resulting hardly from a natural, cultural evolution (the pairing of which adjectives should be illuminating enough) but from a highly contingent history that could have as easily followed countless other paths.

In terms of “civilization”, the founder of ethnopoetics, Jerome Rothenberg, makes a pertinent observation in the Pre-face to the first edition of his epochal assemblage Technicians of the Sacred (1967):  “Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.” When one considers that the oldest, continuous society on earth is not China but that of the Australian Aborigines, whose oral poetry sings of a ground sloth extinct 60, 000 years, the variability if not relativity of technical ingenuity becomes apparent.

Intelligence, as well, is neither a simple, nor exclusively technical, nor even human attribute. Some human beings are breath-taking coders, but their smarts are outwitted by the ability of a chickadee to remember where it’s stashed its seeds. Indeed, the attempt to imagine nonhuman intelligence, like the one Denise L. Herzing undertakes in her 2013 paperProfiling nonhuman intelligence: An exercise in developing unbiased tools for describing other ‘types’ of intelligence on earth” expands intelligent life to include dolphins, octopus, insects, and even some bacteria. Even fruit flies can be shown to make decisions.

If we extend our curiosity to sentience, self-awareness, then the standard mirror test shows that Asian elephants, all the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, Eurasian magpies, and even ants possess self-consciousness. And as thought-provoking as it is controversial is the contention of plant neurobiologist Stefan Mancuso that plants possess intelligence and sentience, albeit in a radically nonhuman way. Little wonder then that on 7 July 2012, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals” drafted and signed The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, that, based on four “unequivocal observations”

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I leave it to interested parties to google “panpsychism”….

An aspect of the tale of Narcissus often forgotten or missed is that Narcissus failed to recognize himself in his own reflection. Like Narcissus, SETI researchers and their critics de la Torre and García and the proponents of the ETH fail to recognize that their speculations concerning intelligence and civilization are merely projections of humankind. Despite Darwin and the libraries of research conducted on nonhuman and even plant sentience and intelligence, the reigning prejudice still seems to be what philosophers would call that “ontotheological” one, that Man is made in God’s own image. Once we disabuse ourselves of this mere speciesism, then we see that SETI is merely (“mirrorly”) a search for ourselves and that this prejudice blinds us to the mind-boggling richness of nonhuman life, sentience, and intelligence already sharing this planet with us, at the same time it perhaps mercifully spares us realizing the heart-breaking suffering we impose on innumerable other forms of life. Perhaps it is precisely because of the latter realization we refuse to recognize a sentience like our own in other living beings and turn our gaze from the earth to the stars at our own and increasingly the biosphere’s peril.

 

The Anthropocene as the Beginning of our Descent to Eaarth

The myriad, variegated narratives inspired by UFOs—from sighting reports to the wildest, baseless fantasies to more sobre, scholarly research and reflection, as well as fiction, films, documentaries, and even poems—taken in toto can be grasped, as Jung proposed, as a “visionary rumour” or “myth of things seen in the sky”, the manifest content of a collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of a technological civilization that can imagine its own species suicide as readily as relocating to another planet. It makes perfect sense then that the Contactees of the Cold War era were warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons or that in the 1980s Abductees were shown by their captors depictions of environmental devastation.

The UFO mythos in this way takes up in its vortex both our aspirations nazi-ufosto interplanetary travel and the Anthropocene. That is to say, humankind can be imagined to be already on an interplanetary journey, from Earth to Eaarth, propelled by the same man-made forces that have driven the world from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

Regardless of when the Anthropocene might be said to have started (as if geological epochs are so finely demarcated) and to a lesser extent of whether we term this new age the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or Cthulhucene, the earth is no longer the relatively temperate place that nurtured homo sapiens’ recent cultural development, the civilization we live in. It is undeniable rising levels of atmospheric carbon, ocean acidification, and ubiquitous “plastification” have markedly modified the earth, along with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, the extinction and pressurized evolution of plant and animal species, and human transformations of the landscape and sprawling, artificial constructions all have changed the earth in unnerving, unrecognizable ways. Given a description of the chemical composition of the environments of two planets, we wouldn’t be too far amiss to believe we were observing two different worlds, rather than one in two different epochs. Humankind has transported itself en masse from Earth to Eaarth by an unconscious and unintentional “exoforming” (rather than terraforming) and now faces the challenge of having to colonize a planet unpredictably different from its homeworld.

What propelled human beings to this new planet itself gets caught up by the myth, which points to a Promethean intervention that created the sapience that underwrites the cultural explosion and rapid technological development within the matrix of the Holocene that results in the exoforming of the earth as a by-product of industrialization. The laughably perverse hermeneutic of the Ancient Astronaut Theorists like dreams, slips of the tongue, and other psychopathologies of everyday life, unconsciously discerns a truth, that our present predicament seems destined and out of our control. Whether the cultural heroes and gods of antiquity were Extra-terrestrial teachers, or if they interbred with proto-humans or genetically modified them, the Ancient Astronaut Theorists intuit that human beings are not quite at home on the earth (an insight they share with, among others, certain strains of Gnosticism), that there is something uncanny and “alien” about us, whether we call it sapience, intelligence, science, or technology, or, as I do here, technoscience.

It is just at this point that for all its way-outness the myth harmonizes with those concepts and values that make the accidents and historically and socially contingent forces that led us to this cultural point seem natural, universal and necessary. The assumptions that orient the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), for example, posit that intelligent life is intelligent in the way humans conceive themselves to be, that ET civilizations will follow the same tool-using vector as our own, that technological civilizations follow a linear path such that they can be judged more or less advanced than each other, and that our and their histories will be sufficiently analogous in these regards that once we make contact and learn to understand each other then perhaps we can learn from them how they negotiated their way through the impasses that seem to threaten the existence of the very civilization that led to these crises. In more mundane terms, we tend to have faith that scientific ingenuity will be what will get us through precisely the grave dangers that ingenuity has wrought. This faith in science or “being-scientific”, this assumption that the radically contingent and social history of our civilization’s history as we write it from this moment is somehow more assured than that equally chance-ridden story of our or any species’ evolution and that it is moreover universal to all beings like us is the ideology that underwrites and guides both the speculations that UFOs are spaceships from other planets and that our stories of the gods who descend from the sky in chariots of fire (or more elaborate mechanisms, like that witnessed by Ezekiel) to remake if not make human beings in their own image are actually ancient astronauts.spaceships-ezekiel-1

And it is just here that a darker, more paranoid thread of the myth can be picked out. If we bring together the proposal that ETs have genetically engineered homo sapiens from the beginning with the stories about alien abduction and human-alien hybridization (a most extreme version being perhaps the more recent work of David Jacobs) then it becomes imaginable that the earth and human beings have been undergoing a process of colonization from the inside-out. The genetic and cultural interventions or intrusions simultaneously culture a technological intelligence and behaviour that exoforms the earth while the human species is transformed into an alien species fit for the planet the earth is becoming. I am unsure if any Gnostic in their most pessimistic speculation has outlined such a destiny and fate for humankind. In this view, the technoscientic knowledge outlined above and science-fictionally projected here is an alien technology whose end is at the same time the repression of the recognition of all non-human intelligence on the earth (the matter for another note, surely) and the extinction of homo sapiens and the earth as we knew it.

N.b. Let me be clear:  I hardly believe the contents of the myth I sketch here. I merely set out to constellate and cast the horoscope as it were of patterns I find in the UFO mythos and its implications and suggestions. It is therefore not a question of the truth of the Ancient Astronaut Hypothesis or the views of David Jacobs but of what meaning can be gleaned from them, reading them as if they were just what I suppose they are here, aspects of a myth for our time.

 

[A Note on the ‘tha’]

As of the writing of this note, no visitor to Skunkworks has seemed moved to remark thatthe-ear-and-eye there seems to be a spelling error in the blog’s catch line. I would assure any who have discerned that ‘the’ is spelled ‘tha’ that this is in fact no error.

‘Tha’ is a coinage of mine, intended to conflate the senses of the definite and indefinite articles, more focussed than the indefinite, implying, perhaps, the singularity of the modified noun, less self-assured than the definite, open to or even suggesting a plurality.

Those who find this orthographic gesture a shade precious I would refer to Derrida’s (in)famous paper “Differance” (in both Speech and Phenomena and Margins of Philosophy) or, pleading poetic license, to the typorthography of e. e. cummings or bill bisset (let alone James Joyce in his Finnegans Wake…), or, even moreso, the wordplay at work in the poetry of Chaucer or Spenser and others of their time before spelling became uniform through the advent of the printing press and more general education, and who knew the etymology of ‘poet’ rimed with the older English synonym ‘makar’….

UFOs, Borges, and the Limits of Reason

At the only “ufological” blog I visit, a complaint has been made that “the conflation of the paranormal with UFOlogy….alien abductions, crop circles, cryptozoology, and hordes of New Age fluff” makes it so ufology, as a serious concern if not nascent discipline, can’t, as it were, get off the ground. My, expanded and developed, response follows.

Methodical inquiry (“science”) only gets under way once its basic concepts are articulated, a workable object is obtained to study and methods of investigation proper to that object grasped and developed. Of course, existing science demonstrates that the same object can be studied by different disciplines, e.g., emotion by psychology, neuropsychology, and anthropology, among others, and that sometimes there is no object to study, as was the case with phlogiston.

In the case of the pseudoscience of ufology, at least three problems arise:

On the one hand, the community of ufophiles is hardly a homogeneous group of like-minded and like-educated persons; it is wildly heterogenous, so discussion goes off in all directions. From such disciples no discipline is likely to arise.

On the other hand, other phenomena get yoked in, because they appear at the same time: glowing balls of light are associated with the appearance of some crop circles; Big Foot sightings do accompany UFO sightings; nor does it take a scholar of New Religious Movements to hear the “New Age fluff” in the preachings of Orthon, Semjase, and their ilk (ignoring for the present that Flying Saucers have always been imagined in the context of occult thought: Guy Ballard met the prototypes of Adamski’s Orthon in the 1930s, for example).

On the third hand, at least three researchers in three different fields (Jacques Vallee (Dimensions), Hilary Evans (Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians:  Encounters with Non-Human Beings), and Terry Matheson (Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon)) have noted parallels between UFO sightings, visions of angels and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, hauntings, shamanic initiation experiences, Near Death Experiences, alien abductions, Fairy abductions, and so on, which would seem to suggest a general theory of apparitions, not without its natural scientific, psychological, and sociological anchors.

As usual, the UFO phenomenon (or not) illuminates, if not creates a vortex that whips together, all manner of material together, precisely in a way to frustrate our existing rational schemata and to suggest there is indeed more in Heaven and Hell than is dreamt of in our philosophies, natural and otherwise. It brings to mind the passage from Borges that so fascinated Foucault, who cites it at the beginning of his Preface to The Order of Things. (The original in English translation is found in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” in Borges’ Other Inquisitions).

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

(trans. Ruth L C Simms)