Banias, Adorno, and UFOs in the news

Among the few ufophiles I engage with, the one easiest to talk to is M. J. Banias. He, like me, is less concerned with the nature, truth or reality of UFOs than with the kind of thinking that goes into that question and with the people who do that thinking (hence the title to his latest book, The UFO People). We might, at times, fundamentally disagree, but at least we’re on the same page.

One thinker we both engage, as far as possible, is Theodor Adorno (if you’re at all acquainted with Adorno’s thought, you’ll know what I mean). Banias brings to bear Adorno’s notes on astrology as it appeared in the American press during his exile in the United States to the analogous case of UFOs in the news today, whether History, Fox, The New York Times, or The Washington Post.

Check out what he’s got to say on the matter. I’ve already registered some of my reservations in the comments. And if what he has to say piques your interest, subscribe to his YouTube channel:  he’s aiming at 1,000 subscribers before the end of June and, last I checked, he’s nearly there.

Anyone with the nerve (or gall) to bring Derrida and Adorno into the conversation about and around UFOs is worth a listen.


A speculation on the making of a modern myth

Decades before our era of fake news and the bots who disseminate it, I once half-jokingly pitched a book idea to an old English teacher and friend. I imagined writing a tell-all exposé by a creative writer who had been drafted on graduation into a secret government project whose purpose was to produce cultural materials, novels, television and movie scripts, and so forth, with the intent of tweaking and guiding the culture at large. The UFO mythology, of course, played a central role. But recently having had the opportunity to view Corbell’s Bob Lazar:  Area 51 & Flying Saucers, it strikes me I may well have been beaten to the punch.

Corbell’s documentary omits some very telling details of Lazar’s story, but includes one I hadn’t known, that early in his tenure at Area 51, Lazar was shown a number of briefing documents concerning UFOs and their extraterrestrial pilots. To the cognoscenti, Lazar’s experience is not unique:  Bill Cooper and Bob Dean both tell similar stories of being given materials that deal with crashed saucers, recovered and back-engineered technology, and captured and autopsied ETs. What Lazar, Cooper, and Dean claim to have read seems pulled from the same filing cabinet as the MJ-12 documents. If we refuse to take these at face value, then we need to imagine their possible significance and purpose.

There are a number of potential uses. One not too out-of-this-world is as a kind of test. Given that since the postwar advent of the phenomenon roughly half the general population believes that “flying saucers are real”, it follows roughly half of military personnel will hold similar beliefs. Imagine a junior intelligence officer is up for promotion. You present them with materials like those shown to Lazar and ask them to prepare a brief for a superior. A candidate whose critical faculties fail to filter such material as highly questionable if not outright disinformation is surely unreliable. The all-too-credulous might even be tempted to leak the world-shattering information they’ve been shown, and, when they are, understandably, demoted or dismissed, they can point to their discharge as proof of their claims and start a new career as a ufological whistleblower….

An important inspiration for my unwritten novel was the speculations of William Burroughs’ lifelong experiments on how to destabilize and destroy the reigning control system of image and association. Since, I’ve read Frances Stonor Saunders on how during the Cold War the CIA sought to weaponize the arts and learned about the related, farther-reaching Operation Mockingbird. Robbie Graham has explored ways the cinematic presentation of flying saucers and ETs was possibly spun in similar ways. Given the persistence of reports of the kinds of documents Lazar claims to have read, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some version of the stable of writers I imagined actually exists.

This Gnostic-paranoid speculation concerning the manipulation if not outright fabrication of our collective imaginarium also brings to mind Jacques Vallée’s proposal that the UFO phenomenon itself might operate as a kind of control system, inspiring and guiding belief. If we combine these ideas, a compelling if somewhat giddy vision suggests itself,  that collective consciousness is a battlefield fought over by human and nonhuman players. In this context, the thought, whether Elon Musk’s or Nik Bostrom’s, that we might be living in a computer simulation appears a cheap rip off of The Matrix.








“…the Aliens gave us modern technology…”–a note to The Promethean Lure

Despite my critique of a certain tendency in Jacques Vallée’s thinking about the place of the UFO phenomenon in human history, I do find his work consistently compelling and an endless source of inspiration, if only for my more creative work, on Orthoteny.

Synchronicity has recently tossed my way a tidbit relevant to my all-too-brief reflection on the Promethean aspect of the Extraterrestrial. Reading the latest installment of his Forbidden Science:  Volume Four:  Journals 1990-1999, The Spring Hill Chronicles, I found a pertinent entry, from Sunday 6 April 1997:

The point that irks me most in the ufology dogma is the absurd idea that the Aliens gave us modern technology:  the often-heard notion that the transistor derived from Roswell is met with ridicule in Silicon Valley. Not only did the work of Bell Labs begin well before July 1947, but German inventor Oskar Heil had demonstrated a field-effect transistor on a lab bench in Germany in the early thirties. Heil is listed as owner of British patent 439-457, filed in 1934…. As early as June 1904 a device called the “Telemobiloskop” had been demonstrated.

It would, however, be an error to let the facts obscure the truth. The “UFO dogmatist” might reply that Heil was in communication with extraterrestrials through the Vril Society, or that the Telemobiloskop, too, was a crumb thrown us by the inventors of the Phantom Airships of 1896/7. More seriously, though, is the rich suggestiveness of the Promethean ET that runs throughout “the ufology dogma”, spontaneously generating a mythological image for the complex notion that German philosopher Martin Heidegger termed “the essence of technology” and that plays an important role in the religious reception of the UFO as D. W. Pasulka has tried to show in her American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, and Technology.


An Alien Abduction & a Fairy Tale: “Is that clear enough?”–A Note

In Forbidden Science:  Volume Four:  Journals 1990-1999, The Spring Hill Chronicles, Jacques Vallée writes in the entry for 1 January 1996:

In one recent case an abductee reports seeing human arms and legs piled up like firewood in a corner of a dark room, lit by a blue glow. Ufologists take it at face value. To me the scene has a stunning mythopoetic connection to Germanic fairy tales where a hero spends the night in a haunted castle; little men force him to play bowling games as they knock down bones using human heads that keep dropping down the chimney. In the tale a horrible being reassembles itself out of the members that have appeared chaotically. Is that clear enough?

With Passport to Magonia (1969), Vallée began to probe the relation between modern UFO sightings and entity encounters with premodern narratives, myths, legends, tales, and chronicles of aerial phenomena and meetings with nonhuman intelligences, arguing, at times, that their similarities suggest something about the mystery behind the UFO phenomenon. His approach, in general, has been richer and more sophisticated than the approach summed up in the name von Däniken, though not always. His journal entry (above) is hardly a summation of his own positions, but it is representative of certain pitfalls the line of inquiry can fall into.

As I have argued on a number of occasions, it’s not only the ufologists who take things at face value (as if “face value” were a simple, obvious notion…). All other provisos aside, a preliminary question is exactly how are an alien abduction narrative and a folk tale equivalent kinds of narrative? Before comparing these stories one need get clear on the narrative codes that govern or governed their composition and reception. For example, anyone who takes “at face value” the Hebrews’ forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt and Jesus’ forty days and forty nights retreat before beginning his ministry is simply ignorant of the rhetoric or hermeneutics at work in Biblical narrative.

But even before engaging such substantial and necessary matters, a number of other problems come to mind. Taken “at face value”, assuming that the abduction narrative was retrieved by means of hypnosis, a more parsimonious explanation is that the abductee had been exposed to the fairy tale Vallée has in mind in his or her childhood and the forgotten (i.e., unconscious) content has resurfaced in surreal fashion during the hypnotic regression. Or, if one wants to indulge a more Jungian than Freudian approach, one might posit that the dreamlike memories conjured up under hypnosis and the imagery of the fairy tale both spring from the same mental source, the creative or collective unconscious.

But most tellingly is what’s revealed to be at work in Vallée’s own mind. The “Germanic fairy tale” is very likely the fourth in the Brothers Grimm’s collection, “Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen” (“The Tale of a Boy who Went Forth to Learn Fear”). In this tale,  there are no “little men” (that might count as analogues to the diminutive Greys presumably present in the abductee’s story), nor, strictly speaking,  does “a horrible being reassemble itself out of …members that have appeared chaotically”:  first one half, then another half of a man falls through the chimney; the two halves then reassemble themselves into a “hideous man.” Vallée has only dimly (mis)remembered the tale himself, fabulating a version as fictitious as the abductee’s hypnotically retrieved narrative in line with the point he desires both to perceive and make. Once we undertake the simplest philological labour, we see that the abductee’s story and the fairy tale as Vallée remembers it have next to nothing in common, other than, perhaps, certain psychological mechanisms that might be invoked to explain their respective creation.

Whatever what might finally be made of Vallée’s speculations concerning the sometimes very striking parallels between premodern and modern “UFO” narratives (as is the case with Faery and Alien Abductions), if his approach is to have more than a mythopoetic value (which I prize highly!), then a certain minimum of philological and hermeneutic reflection is called for. Is that clear enough?




The Promethean Lure

As Kevin Randle and others have remarked, recent U.S. Navy pilots’ encounters with UFOs are nothing we haven’t seen before. Since the Second World War, air force pilots have observed, pursued, and even fired on what appear to be aeroforms capable of instantaneously accelerating to hypersonic speeds, making impossible forty-five degree angle turns, and stopping, all performance features that outstrip the aircraft of the day. And then just as now it was speculated whether or not these aeroforms were domestic or foreign (not necessarily extraterrestrial) experimental aircraft. But beneath these analogues, a deeper pattern is discernible.

It’s an old chestnut of the Ancient Astronaut / Alien line of thinking that the culture heroes of world mythology, those deities that gifted humankind with fire (Prometheus) or writing (Thoth) for example, were in truth extraterrestrials leading homo sapiens down the path of technological development. A not unrelated story concerns the back-engineering of extraterrestrial technology recovered either from crashed saucers or intact ones secured through agreements with their pilots’ civilizations. On our own or under the guidance of ET advisors, the study of ET-tech has given us the transistor and fibre-optics (as Philip J. Corso contends in his 1998 book The Day After Roswell) and promises free-energy technology, and, with it, the advanced aeroform of the flying saucer, which, some believe, the American military or some break-away civilization has already developed.

A more circumspect version of such reflections was recently expressed by Dr Garry Nolan, who, thinking out loud, imagines the possibility that metamaterials left as physical traces of UFO sightings may be a gift, a kind of clue, so that their unusual characteristics might prompt us not only to develop ways to reproduce them but to imagine uses for them. The 2018 film UFO presents a similar scenario, where the mathematics needed to understand the ETs’ communications becomes increasingly complex, leading researchers along a line of mathematical and physical speculation toward the understanding of nature that enabled the ETs to overcome precisely the same threats to the survival of civilization we now face. In the same way such metamaterials function as hints to lines of inquiry, the aerial antics of the UFO become (in the words of Tyler Rogoway) a kind of “Holy Grail of aerospace engineering.”

Extraterrestrial technology becomes, then, either retro- or prospectively, a projection of next generation human technology. On the one (sociopolitical) hand, this projection is an expression of the ideology of the so-called advanced societies:  one haphazard inflection of human civilization imagines itself to be in line with a pattern of technological development characteristic of intelligent life universally, the kind of thinking that underwrites Maitreya Raël’s claim that his extraterrestrial teachers, the Elohim, are “25,000 years ahead” of us. On the other (more mythological) hand, the extraterrestrial symbolizes the alpha and omega, the arche and telos, of technological humanity: ET either gifts us technology or teaches us by means of teasing puzzles; more radically, in other speculations, ET interbreeds with us or biotechnologically “makes us in His own image” to raise us to its own level.

The Extra-Terrestrial, then, can be understood as an eminently mythological figure, “mythological” in the sense of making universal and necessary an historical contingency (reifying this moment of technological civilization) and, in a more compelling sense, an emblem of that reification, an idol embodying “the essence of technology”, simultaneously a transformation of the Promethean culture hero and a radical revision that remakes the mythic past in the image of now or what we thereby imagine tomorrow to be.


The Message of the Medium

It wasn’t that long ago that those long intrigued by the UFO mystery were tempted to declare the phenomenon and its study (ufology) moribund if not downright dead in the water. Yet, today, they’re blogging on the edge of their seats and even, when their breath isn’t bated, whispering the word “Disclosure”. Their excitement has been resurrected by recent revelations in print and television (History’s series Unidentified) concerning apparent encounters  with classically super-performing aeroforms in 2014 and 2015 by Navy pilots in training maneuvers from Virginia to Florida off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. This about-face got me thinking.

As early as 1965, Jacques Vallée grasped that “The phenomenon under study is not the UFO…but the report written by the witness” (Anatomy of a Phenomenon, vii). However, a variation on this methodology, one adopted by John Keel (and many others) as recounted in his Operation Trojan Horse (1970), is the collection and collation of reports of witness reports from the news media. The example of Keel’s practice suggests the possibility that waves of interest in the phenomenon are not directly related to any patterns in the phenomenon itself but are mediated by patterns of reporting on the phenomenon in the media.

In a media environment governed in the final analysis by profit, as in the case of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets that have recently carried these sensational stories and op ed pieces on them, it is tempting to attribute this sudden, revitalized excitement not so much to new developments in the field (after all, the sightings recently on record bear all the hallmarks of pilot encounters from the late 1940s to today) but to patterns of demand and supply.

If we begin at the crest of a wave of interest, UFO stories will sell well. However, public interest can and will reach a saturation point and interest and sales will fall off. After a sufficient time, however, the potential interest in the phenomenon will again be ripe for stimulation, and reports appearing at that time will swell another wave of fascination and the market for stories, journalistic and fictional. Consciously or not, the media might be said to employ a kind of rotation method (as in agriculture) when it comes (at least) to the UFO topic because of the nature of their customers’ attention spans.

These recent dramatic encounters may well be nothing more (again) than, as astrophysicist Leon Golub opines, “bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, [or] neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight.” But, like those pilots spoofed by their new, unfamiliar instrumentation, those surfing this most recent swell of excited interest may, as well, be merely taken for a ride by the code running the media.


Addendum:  Since my first attempt at articulating the reflections above, Chris Rutkowski has made public his own, not unrelated, thoughts on this most recent media furor, worth a gander.





There are no repeats in space

Avi Loeb, the Harvard Professor of Astronomy is at it again. Professor Loeb is most famous of late for his conjectures that the interstellar object Oumuamua might be an alien spaceship. Most recently remarks he made at The Humans to Mars Summit (14-16 May 2019) concerning the value of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have stirred some interest.

I haven’t had the time to fast forward through the three days’ live streaming to find Professor Loeb’s talk, but the idea of his that caught the attention of at least two journalists (here and here) is that discovering extraterrestrial civilizations that have self-destructed, as ours threatens to do, might help us learn to avoid their fatal mistakes:  “The idea is we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.”

Where to begin?…

In the best of all possible worlds, Loeb and I would have an intellectual cage match on this subject. I have consistently (and with increasing impatience, admittedly) taken to task the assumptions that underwrite Loeb’s views and SETI in general, on the grounds that they are anthropocentric in identifying “intelligence” with human intelligence (an identification with fatal consequences for all those other intelligent life forms with which we share the earth) and, worse, that they reify one civilization’s vector of technical development, namely that of “the West”, as being natural to all imaginable anthropomorphically intelligent life. The Enlightenment is sometimes taken to task for unconsciously restricting the human to white, ruling-class males; SETI’s assumptions seem equally, if not more, perverse.

But Loeb’s statement quoted above reveals the vacuity of his thesis. We don’t need to discover another civilization that ended itself through war, nuclear or otherwise, or by fouling its own nest. We already understand that we need avoid even a “limited” nuclear war and we already monitor the habitability of our planet, with increasing scrutiny and anxiety. The only virtue of this aspect of xenoarchaeology would be to discover a civilization that succumbed to an internal threat of which we are unaware. But even letting SETI’s frankly ideological assumptions off the hook, even such a discovery would be empty, since civilizations are each determined at each moment by a set of conditions that are in each instance radically local (historical).

My argument here cuts too against those who believe we can learn from history. Such thinking makes of human societies a kind of natural phenomenon subject to transtemporal laws. But human societies are not “natural” in the way the behaviour of the electron is natural, but historical, and, as such, admit to being not known but only understood within the context of a constellation of temporally local and ephemeral determinants. In a word, and to say too much too quickly, human societies operate within the realm of freedom not (natural) necessity. This is not to say humans beings in the aggregate escape or otherwise stand above nature, but only that it is illegitimate to seek to know them the same way we seek knowledge of nonhuman nature.

Nor am I arguing ultimately against the curiosity that drives SETI. What I am relentlessly and mercilessly critical of are the zombie ideas that make of the human being, and our present iteration of civilization, exemplars of all imaginable intelligence throughout the universe.