When a sighting report is not

Visitors to tha Skunkworks will know how little patience I have for those (whose name is legion) who insist on taking premodern tales or artwork to be the equivalent of modern-day UFO sighting reports. I’ve taken Vallée to task for conflating alien abduction reports with fairy tales and Velikovsky, Jaynes, and Ancient Astronaut theorists (not to mention even scholar D. W. Pasulka, who should know better) for their no less ahistorical errors. My point has always been that the way we communicate today differs from the ways of other times and places (linguists would refer to differing “codes”), and, so, it’s just ignorant to read texts or interpret art universally according to how we write and represent things here and now. Friend and Irish Studies scholar Antoine Malette has provided me with an excellent case in point.

Celtic Studies scholar John Cary (presently at University College Cork) presented a paper in 1992 titled “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel” (interested readers without access to JSTOR can sign up for a free membership to read it, here). In his study, Cary scrutinizes variations of a story familiar to readers of Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia (144). In Cary’s version:

There happened something once in the borough called Cloena [=Cionmacnoise], which will also seem marvellous. In this town there is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Kiranus [=Ciarán]. One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, it befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship; for a rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got stuck in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marveled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When he came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In the church where the anchor was caught, there is a bishop’s throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon, as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church since then as a testimony to this event.

Curiously, Vallée (and Donald B. Hanlon from whom he cites the story (and Harold T. Wilkins, Hanlon’s ultimate source)) remarks the tale’s variations from eighth century Ireland to Merkel, Texas in April, 1897 and (along with Hanlon) the provocative if no less problematic analogues between the medieval and modern versions but neglects to unfold the implications of this variation, unlike the scholar Cary.

All in all, Cary examines no fewer than six versions of the story, including the newspaper report from 1897. He summarizes their development as follows:

(a) In the mid-eighth century, a notice that ships had been seen in the air was included in the annals. The apparition was subsequently localized at the assembly of Tailtiu, and said to have been witnessed by the then reigning king of Tara.

(b) By the late eleventh century the story had been transferred to the reign of the tenth-century king Congalach Cnogba, and embellished with the detail of the lost and recovered fishing-spear [thrown from the ship]; there was now only one air ship,

(c) By the end of the twelfth century the story was shifted to the monastic milieu of Clonmacnoise, and an anchor took the place of the fishing-spear.

So, the version Vallée and Hanlon compare to the 1897 newspaper story is already so embellished it can’t be seriously considered anything other than a fanciful (i.e. fictional) tale of the marvelous (a medieval genre with its own features and purposes). But I’m not interested in the tiresome exercise of merely debunking Vallée et al. The philology of this tale’s development is more complex and interesting in its implications.

Having surveyed the tale’s variations, Cary conjectures about how it might have arrived at its final, thirteenth century version. The sky ship’s anchor getting caught echoes a motif from around the world and from at least two extant Irish texts, the saga Tochmarc Emere and an extended gloss on the hymn “Ni car Brigit buadach bith“. The tale reaches its fullest elaboration with the Clonmacnoise version likely because, as Carey writes, “Clonmacnoise in the later Middle Irish period seems to have been greedy for marvels: quite a number of little tales, drawn in all likelihood from many disparate sources, associate the monastery with fantastic occurrences of all kinds.” Therefore, Cary concludes, “it seems likeliest that it was in the heady atmosphere of Clonmacnoise mirabilia-collecting” that previous versions and other material “were fused into a single tale.”

The very scheme of the story (aerial ships) and other marvelous elements woven into it by the monks of Clonmacnoise are part of a larger tapestry in Irish and world literature. Cary cites the example of “the famous encounter between the mortal Bran in his ship and the divine Manannán in his chariot, and the [ancient, pagan] poem in which the god declares that what is sea to one is land to the other”. Cary proposes that

such flourishes of paradox and surreality subordinate our habitual frame of reference to an alien [!] and unreckonable scheme which lies beyond it. The stories, in [Proinsias] Mac Cana’s words, explore “the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, between this and the other world, together with the ambiguities and relativities of time and space which were implicit in their interaction.”

Cary’s and Mac Cana’s point here is all the more persuasive when one reflects that the clouds’ being compared to the foam of the sea is ancient, and the revery that inspires it is likely one many of us will remember from our childhood.

However much the story of sky ships is caught up inextricably in daydream, poetic inspiration, and embellished retellings, the matter is still more complex. As all authors here—Cary, Vallée, and Hanlon—admit, the problem of how the modern, newspaper story follows so closely upon the thirteenth century version cited above is “a recalcitrant one.” Moreover, Cary, being the sincere scholar he is, admits up front that

the date, the range of attestation, and the fact that the item [the appearance of aerial vessels] was first recorded in Latin all suggest that we have here to do with a contemporary notice of an anomalous occurrence [my emphasis]. We will of course never know what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s, or how many retellings and mutations separated the first testimony from its distillation in the annals.

In the case of the newspaper story from the Houston Daily Post, the story either records a real event, copies the tale from the thirteenth century Norse text Konungs Skuggsj, or uncannily draws from the same sources of inspiration that coalesced in that version; each of these possibilities equally strain credulity. More to the point, we’re still left with the mystery Cary notes, “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s.”

Those inclined to believe the Psychosocial Hypothesis will maintain that even those earliest, lost passages from the annals record nothing more than rumours, themselves merely stories like that of Bran and the god Mannanán, inspired by the same imaginative schema as the Irish poem. But this response, ironically, commits the same error as taking all stories to be equivalent to witness reports, conflating the genre of the annal or chronicle with that of mirabilia, forgetting that Herodotus called his writings “histories” motivated by the meaning of the ancient Greek verb at the root of our word ‘history’, meaning to inquire, explore, or, as the poet Charles Olson so forcefully put it, to see for oneself. This is to say, no less ironically (or dialectically) that Herodotus’ histories and medieval annals and chronicles are closer in spirit and linguistic code to modern day witness or newspaper reports than the marvelous tales worked up the monks of Clonmacnoise. And a sufficiently persuasive account for how the 1897 version of the story came to be written is still wanting.

Thus, a further irony leads us to a notion central to Ancient Astronaut theorizing, that the body of literature under scrutiny here, like all those myths such theorists point to, is the pearl formed by the oyster of the Unconscious or Creative Imagination around the hard grain of truth of “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead”. But this proposal doesn’t get us very far either, for just what the medieval annals record, in this case, at least, is lost, and, ironically (…), the modern-day version is, in Hanlon’s words, all the more “strange and, in fact, downright suspicious” precisely because of its mirroring the thirteenth century, demonstrably fabulous version.

What should remain beyond a reasonable doubt is the need for and value of the application of intelligent, sensitive specialized erudition in such matters, an application neglected by all the ufological authors in question. Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter. Indeed, similar scrutiny can be applied even to the hermeneutics, productive and receptive, of modern-day witness reports, as if their being contemporary makes them any more immediately comprehensible. By a further turn of the screw of irony, such considered and well-informed analyses and explanations render the topic all the more mysterious, leaving as well the hard kernel of the mystery of just what was seen along with the strangeness of its apparent transhistorical consistency as further grist for the mill of reflection, investigation, and speculation.

No Singularity but Technological Terminus?

Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.

In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.

More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).

The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies:  on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists:  like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.

At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?

This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).

What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.

The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.

 

The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

If William Murphy over at The Anomalist found my post on Robbie Graham’s take on the hyperreality of the UFO “brainy”, I can only shake my head over what he or the like-minded will make of this one…

A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.

Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.

The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.

The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that

…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….

I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.

Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.

 

Phantom Airships, after the fact

Recently, a commenter at UFO Conjectures felt the need to share with me a link concerning mystery aircraft, from 1865-1946. I was a little taken aback, as I’ve been well-apprised of this history since beginning my work on Orthoteny in the early 1990s.

The 1994 chapbook On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery cuts about the same swath, focusing on the Phantom Airships of 1896/7, then jumping ahead to the years just before the Great War, ending with the first bombing of London by Zeppelins and the story of Hill 60, before punctuating the section with the first modern sighting, Kenneth Arnold’s, in 1947.

I therefore share today the final three poems from the Phantom Airship sequence proper.

 

1913

 

The luminous object witnessed early last evening

The War Office has declared a spy-craft

 

Tonight a piercing light

                lit up every corner

                                swept up to the hills

Bright lights flew over at thirty miles an hour

                huffing like a faint train

                                the squeal of gears a clank of flaps

 

Rising last evening

                all of magnitudes greater

                                than Venus

Before daybreak

                unidentifiable lights

                                crossed the Channel

Seen overhead

                sixty miles further

                                every hour after

All afternoon

                they cruised west in threes

                                streets crowded to see

With sunset

                one’s lamp played down

                                gone in a flash

From the east

                three came

                                to hover an hour

Silhouetted

                in their own

                                dazzling glare

 

 

Zeppelin

 

The tram stops

Blackout

A distant drone

 

The audience rises

To sing

“God Save the King”

 

One incendiary

Crashed through the ceiling

Went off in the hall

 

They were in bed and old

Knelt by the bed

And held each other

 

Another fell between the roofs

Onto the narrow lane just in front of them

But bounced off before it burst

 

The side of one house

And the Salvation Army Barracks windows

Blown out

 

A boarding house burned down

The Butcher’s shutters rattled

Neighbours in sheets on the street

 

Three of them lit up against the sky

Incendiaries fireballs falling

Searchlights and the city burning making a twilight

 

 

Hill Sixty

 

Dawn broke clear over Sulva Bay

Only six oval silvery clouds loafed

Undisturbed by the breeze

 

At sixty degrees

To us twenty-four

Six hundred feet away

 

Over the Hill a gunmetal cloud

Three hundred feet high and wide nine hundred long

Not nineteen chains from the trenches

 

The First

Fourth Norfolk

Ordered to reinforce the Hill

 

Were lost to sight as they marched

Into the cloud

For almost an hour

 

It rose then

Off with the others

North

 

No trace

Or record of them

Every found

More from Orthoteny (w.i.p.): Magonian Latitudes

Last week, I shared one section from a long poem, “Magonian Latitudes” (from my second trade edition, Ladonian Magnitudes), that rimes with another section from my treatment of the Phantom Airship Mystery of 1896/7.

Here, I share the entirety of the poetic sequence, an attempt to wind together the notion of the myth-as-myth and allusions to ancient (and medieval) aliens. It has six sections, the beginning of each indicated by the bolded, upper-case first letter of the section’s first line.

Poetically, this sketch for a part of Orthoteny (my work-in-progress dealing with the myth of things seen in the sky in its totality as explored here at Skunkworks) draws on a catholic sampling of the poetics of international, Twentieth-century poetry. It ain’t no doggerel!

Magonian Latitudes

…there is a certain region, which they call Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds…

 

A change of dimension

            not just locale

Like lungs for gills

            or water to air

 

Horses, bison, mammoth, ibex,

            numberless others unheard of

Rendered on cave-walls

            palimpsest thick

Yet on the ceiling alone

            in threes and fours

Flying Saucers hover

            over their occupants

 

The Cabalist Zedechias

            in Pepin’s reign

Sought to convince the world

            Daimonas Sadaim

Neither angelic nor human in kind

            inhabit the Elements

Required the Sylphs show themselves

            in the Air for everyone

Which they did sumptuously

            in the Air in human form

In battle array marching in good order

            halting under arms or magnificent tents

Or the full sails of ships

            riding clouds

 

When winds rose and blew

            black clouds overhead

The peasants ran to the fields

            to lift tall poles

To stay the ships

            from carrying off

What rain or hail

            culled from the crops

Called up by a tempestaire

            for a tithe

Which practice persisted despite

            the Capitularies of Charlemagne

 

The Sylphs saw alarm

            from peasant to crown

Determined to dissipate their terror

            by carrying off men

To show them their women

            and republic

Then set them down

            again on earth

Those who saw these as they descended

            came from every direction

Carried away by the frenzy

            hurried off to torture

Over all the lands countless tested

            by fire or water

 

A marvel in Cloera County

            interrupted Sunday Mass

It befell an anchor on a rope

            caught in Saint Kinarus’ door-arch

Where the line ended in clouds

            the congregation saw some kind of ship

One crewman dove and swam down

            as if to free the flukes from the keystone

But they seized and would hold him

            but that the Bishop

On grounds terrestrial air

            may well drown one celestial

Forbade it

            and freed

Quick as limbs can swim he rose

            to hands on ropes and ladders

The anchor rang and cut

            the line coiled down about them

 

The cave is a long way in from the mouth open to the sky

Generations there stare straight ahead on haunches

Higher up behind a fire burns

A wall before those hurrying past between

Both ways up and down the track there

Their burdens their shadows

 

One over her share

            the water over the earth

The other in the firmament

            the water over the earth

The air a mirror

Whose face is an ocean

            waves electro-magnetic

There they stare dreaming

A quiet blue eye flickers

RE: Robbie Graham on UFOs and Hyperreality: An Addendum and Excursis

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. aliens-examining-an-abducted-female-mary-evans-picture-libraryHowever, 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).