“What IS that?!”–Notes on perceiving the anomalous

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.

Frederic_Church_Meteor_of_1860

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”.

An Important Consequence of the “Postmodern” Reality of the UFO

[“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encounter in the desert of the Real

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!”.

Poweplant

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.]

 

What do UFOs have to do with it?

I’ve noticed recently how those sincerely interested in the UFO mystery can at the same time dismiss the idea that the phenomenon might possess a more general import. Here and elsewhere I’ve read comments such as, “the UFO culture is now purely entertainment,” “the number of people who actively engage with the UFO topic on a frequent and regular basis (go beyond merely occasionally watching a video clip, listening to a sound bite, or scanning an article) represents a small percentage of the US population,” and that the “real UFO conspiracy [is] why the UFOs have become a joke and such an embarrassing subject in ‘serious’ conversation,” all in stark contrast to the unabashed and breathless enthusiasm of those fascinated by the idea of  Disclosure (that at least one of the world’s governments has been in contact with extraterrestrials (ETs) for decades and has been gifted or back-engineered their technology).

“The UFO topic” that that “small percentage” of the population engages with is approximated by, for example, recent stories concerning U.S. Navy encounters with apparently anomalous aeroforms and History’s latest series Project Blue Book and Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation. As has been the case since Donald Keyhoe wrote his books, in this arena the UFO is invariably imagined to be either an extraterrestrial spaceship or maybe a domestic or foreign aeronautical breakthrough, even for those not unacquainted with Jacques Vallée’s Magonians, John Keel’s ultraterrestrials, or even Mac Tonnies’ crypoterrestrials, or more recent speculations concerning other dimensions and times. The demographic represented by this “small percentage” is imaginably very slight (though one does wonder just what empirical research would in fact show).

On the other hand, since 1947, consistently roughly half the population in North America and Europe believe “flying saucers are real” (however seriously), and, over the same time, the UFO and the ufonauts have invaded and colonized popular culture, so that the UFO as a cultural phenomenon now has a higher brand recognition than, say, Odysseus and Ulysses. It is precisely this liminal ubiquity—being both everywhere but hardly at the centre of attention—that empowers the UFO and ET to express something of, and thereby illuminate, if not overtly influence, the culture at large.

The UFO-as-sign (as a vehicle of meaning) functions both factually and fictionally, regardless of whatever reality the UFO might ultimately turn out to possess. As something taken as real, it has clearly reflected the anxieties of the times. Jung, as is well-known, argued the flying saucer functioned as a compensatory mechanism for the anxieties provoked by the Cold War. On one hand, its circular, mandala shape symbolized the unity absent from a sundered world, while, on another, its seeming a spaceship from a technically-advanced society made it a deus ex machina, an otherworldy, salvific intervention into what seemed a perilous, humanly insoluble crisis. His insight was confirmed by the pacifist messages delivered by the Space Brothers of Adamski and the other Contactees of the 1950s. Decades later, with advances in reproductive technologies, such as the Human Genome Project, the potential for human cloning, and in vitro fertilization, little wonder the hypnotically-induced fantasies of women who believed they’d been abducted by aliens should express the anxieties proper to their time and gender, or that abductees in general sometimes claimed they were shown images of global, often ecological, catastrophe by their abductors just at the time ecological consciousness was dawning toward the glaring near-noon zenith it has reached today.

Given the spontaneous significance attributed to “the visionary rumour” of the UFO and ET contact, it should come as little surprise, likewise, that the creative imagination should find in it an endlessly fecund figurative resonance. Cinema (as Robbie Graham would likely agree) and to a lesser extent television perhaps more than any other media have made the most of this material, as, for example, a metaphor for race (in the films The Brother from Another Planet, Alien Nation, or District 9), global warming (The Arrival), mass extinction (The X-Files episode “Fearful Symmetry”), and the insatiable rapaciousness of capitalism (Independence Day).

For example, the remake of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still twists together the anxious and the hopeful. On the one hand, the alien Klaatu is sent to earth to oversee the destruction of every trace of humankind and its civilization that are rendering the planet uninhabitable for complex life; however, nonhuman, animal organisms are taken up by spherical craft that serve as arks to preserve them from the cleansing process so they may be reintroduced after its completion. Fortunately, Klaatu is persuaded to avert the eradication of human life and, instead, brings to a standstill the technology whose destructive effects brought about the crisis. (The credits roll too soon, though: the results of a global cessation of mechanical technology would doubtless prove catastrophic, resulting in, among other things, mass starvation, with the paralysis of transportation, food processing, and agriculture, a far more cruel, drawn-out process of eradication than the one initially proposed by Klaatu’s civilization!).

The ecological focus and critique of “development” are clear; the imagined solutions, however, are, ironically, hopeless:  humankind itself is incapable of collective action to avert ecological destruction; it, therefore, stands in need of an external, overpowering intervention, whose only proposed solutions are the elimination of homo sapiens (in line with the biocentric ideology of EarthFirst! or the more recent philosophy of anti-natalism) or of the technologies of the so-called developed world. The film’s solutions to our very real problem are less acceptable than the premise of the film as a whole, framing the urgent crisis at its heart as insoluble, inspiring either a resigned fatalism, or, more charitably, a reflective search for alternatives to the unacceptable dilemma posed by the film itself.

The cinematic versions of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and 2010:  The Year We Make Contact develop the theme of the deus ex machina, but along a slightly different trajectory. Both are stories about the guided development (mental or spiritual if not morphological) of anthropomorphic life, from the proto-, to the human, to the meta- or hyperhuman. The genius for tool-use, from a bone-as-club to interplanetary spacecraft and AI, is sparked in the genus Homo by an extraterrestrial agent, represented by an enigmatic, black monolith. One such monolith discovered on the moon, prompts an exploratory expedition to Jupiter, where astronaut Dave Bowman is “evolved” to a superhuman being. In the sequel, a subsequent expedition to discover what happened to the first sets in motion the transformation of Jupiter and its moons into a miniature solar system, a supplementary space for human habitation and resource extraction intended to ease tensions on an overcrowded earth that narrowly escapes nuclear war.

In this fictional universe, the Promethean spirit of technological ingenuity (and power) is posited as a kind of divine spark. Striking it in the protohuman creates a being in the image of the mysterious makers of the black monolith, who guide and shape humankind to ever higher technological achievement and biological/spiritual development ultimately, one might suppose, with the goal of having us attaining their level. It is difficult not to detect a value system underwriting this narrative. Ironically, technological sophistication (e.g., the capacity to invent and build weapons of mass destruction) is not accompanied by a moral or social sense equal to governing the species-suicidal potential of our technical know-how, so, otherworldly intervention is needed. Two problems present themselves. First, if technological savvy is not accompanied by the collective intelligence necessary to control it, then how did the makers of the black monoliths survive this impasse? Secondly, the solution they provide is stop-gap: the essential problem of infinite growth in a finite environment that characterizes the economic system of capitalism, whose advent underwrote the Industrial Revolution, is only temporarily solved by adding more Lebensraum and exploitable resources. The solution to earth’s problems in 2010 seem in hindsight a metaphor for the planned exploration and resource extraction within the solar system and the asteroid belt, the setting for the television series The Expanse and an important assumption in Aaron Bastani’s manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In this case, the imagined solutions to our real problems amount to either faith (indistinguishable from the Christian’s that all works out in God’s plan for humankind) and/or more of the (doomed) same.

In both fact and fiction, then, the UFO and ET appear within the horizon of, and expressing, the existential crises of our time, solving by means of their superiour technology the dire problems the development and deployment of our own have brought to pass. The human being, moreover, plays a singular, special role:  the ufonauts spontaneously recognize homo sapiens as their earthly counterpart among all the other species of life on earth, because of a shared Promethean character, due either to their having implanted it in us or to its being natural to intelligent life:  intelligence implies tool-use, which is merely nascent technology. In the real world, even in arguments offered for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the mere fact of an existing, vastly more advanced technological civilization is evidence that ours can navigate the impasse that threatens to destroy our own, either by following their example or, as in the cinematic examples above, through their direct intervention.

It is precisely, however, the way ET mirrors ourselves, is a projection of ourselves, that gives the game away and reveals an important, if not the primary way, the UFO mythology works in society at large. As I have argued repeatedly and at length here and elsewhere, positing anthropomorphic intelligence, tool-use and technology as natural (universal) propensities to life-as-such is to treat as universal one very geographically and historically local and contingent social formation, namely that of the so-called “First” or “developed world”. This megalomaniacal projection of the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population of one form of life on earth finds a mythical legitimation in, for example, the book of Genesis wherein God creates Man in His own image and a science-fictional one in the universe of 2001 and 2010 wherein an extraterrestrial agent plays both a Promethean and parental role. In either case the destiny of humankind is imagined to be fated, necessary, and, divinely or otherwise, ordained.

The solutions to humanity’s problems proposed in both The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2010 drive this point home all the harder. Either humanity and all traces of it need disappear, or its technology must cease operating, or it must stay the course. None of these are workable. This apparent impasse however results from the assumed inalterability of the status quo:  the unspoken (because unspeakable) solution is social change. As Fredric Jameson put it so well:  “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In its affirmation of existing society, in both its factual and fictive forms the UFO-as-a-sign functions ideologically, maintaining the status quo by occluding the possibility of imagining that things might be otherwise.

Ironically, cinematic pop culture performed this ideology critique already in 1988, in John Carpenter’s They Live!. In this film, the earth has already been colonized by a malevolent alien race that maintains its power by means of a technology that creates an illusory world, that of North America in the late twentieth century. The protagonist has his eyes opened to this reality when he dons a pair of sun glasses with the power to reveal the subliminal messages of advertising and entertainment, etc. that keep humanity in its virtual chains. The deliciousness of this plot is double: the capitalist ruling class is shown “in reality” to be a repulsive, cowardly alien race, thereby inverting the motif of the ET-as-benevolent-saviour in Jung, the Contactees, and 2001 and 2010.

[Interested parties are invited to hear philosopher Slavoj Žižek present his reading of They Live! as ideology critique in his own, inimitable manner!]

Because the UFO mythology is both ubiquitous and liminal, the actual percentage of the population that might admit to consuming either documentary or fictional UFO material is beside the point. The myth is “in the air”, vaguely familiar to everyone, but hardly considered by anyone, a status that enables it to function just below and at the edges of conscious thought. When it does intrude on consciousness, as either fact or fiction, the UFO-as-sign mirrors back to us after its fashion not an Otherness but an insidious Identity. It signifies in this way through no fault of its own; a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it, and, in this case, that is the world capitalism and technology, industrial or otherwise, have made. That the UFO should appear in this way, enlisted in the maintenance of an ecocidal order, is a crime against humanity in particular and life in general, that something that should be out of this world and therefore throwing that world into relief, estranging it through difference, revealing it in all its contingency and alterability, becomes something pitifully, pathetically human, all-too-human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes towards a prolegomena to a future ufology…

[What follows are just what the title says, notes, reflections prompted by frustrating disputes over just what ufology’s aim is or should be, what approach or approaches are legitimate, compatible or incompatible, and so forth.  As such, they are partial, provisional, fitful, and not always consistent; they trace a process of thought. My first essay (attempt) on the question can be read here. A consequent attempt at clarification, here.

Further reflections are, doubtless, forthcoming, ad nauseum….]

Arnold_AAF_drawing

 

One can distinguish a “scientific ufology” from a “phenomenological ufology”. The former affirms the reality of the UFO and seeks to identify (a philosophically-loaded expression) the unidentified flying object, while the latter brackets the question of whether “flying saucers are real” and attends to the actual and potential meanings of the UFO. The former is exemplified by the investigations of physicists James E. McDonald, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter A. Sturrock, while Carl Jung’s monograph Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies is one example of the latter.

Phenomenological ufology can be divided, roughly, between a cultural and a philosophical ufology. The former takes as its object the various meanings of the UFO in the psyche, society, and culture, while the latter probes the concepts assumed and implied by the methodology of scientific ufology and by those meanings discovered by cultural ufology. Philosophical ufology, therefore, bridges the scientific / phenomenological divide, but as a purely conceptual, critical, reflective and speculative labour, does not seek to identify the unidentified flying object, to explain it, but only to determine the conditions and implications of putative if not actual identifications.

“Cultural ufology” might be better termed “Psychosocial ufology”, but then this latter expression would have to be newly-minted to avoid interference with its existing reference to a variegated set of speculations that attempt to explain (rather than grasp the meanings of, i.e., understand) the UFO.

Alternatively, different foci, between UFO Reality (for scientific ufology) and the UFO Effect (for phenomenological or cultural ufology) might be posited, too, but, then, these terms, too, are loaded: for is not the UFO Effect “real”? In fact, might it not turn out that the only reality the UFO possesses is in a class of perceptions and experiences, reports, rumours, texts, and myths? In this regard, it might be clearer to refer to an “explanatory” and “hermeneutic” ufology, along the lines drawn in the Nineteenth century by Wilhelm Dilthey between the natural and human sciences, whose respective, contrasting aims are explanation and understanding.

Scientific (explanatory) ufology will always already possess an understanding of the UFO as a condition of seeking an explanation for it, otherwise it would have, as a science, no object to investigate; phenomenological ufology, in both its cultural and philosophical branches need at no point venture from the understandings (meanings) of the object that it discovers or reflects upon toward an explanation of the object itself. Because of this condition, scientific ufology can always be a possible object for cultural or philosophical ufological investigation or reflection.

Ironically, not only is Scientific Ufology an object for Cultural Ufology, i.e., it is a possible object of investigation for it, but the cultural ufologist is closer in spirit to the believer, witness or experiencer, as for none of them is the reality of the UFO ever at stake, though in diametrically opposed ways.

Just how far phenomenological ufology can hold in abeyance committing itself ontologically one way or the other to the reality of the UFO is a serious question. At any rate, methodologically, it need not become embroiled in debates, for example, between proponents of the Extraterrestrial and Psychosocial Hypotheses. But in fact often the researcher (psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, etc.) proceeds as if the UFO sighted or the contact experience suffered were only subjective. Were the researcher to assume, conversely, the objective reality of what was seen or undergone the character of the research would be radically altered….

There is, of course, no currently existing ufology-as-such; there is hardly even a pseudoscience. There exists, rather only a vulgar, amorphous, incoherent and restless activity with neither direction nor co-ordination. Some serious investigation is carried out, often sub rosa, and more often in the cultural sphere, given its institutional support. One is tempted to abandon all talk of ufology and refer, instead, to physicists, meteorologists, geologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists, scholars of cultural studies, critical theorists, philosophers, etc. each of whose respective disciplines might take the UFO phenomenon in general as its object, thereby dissolving ufulogy (any study of the UFO) into existing and potential disciplines.

At some point, then, someone might take up the task of writing a Phenomenology of Ufology, after the example of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which would coherently order and organize all the different aspects of the UFO these individual disciplines develop. That, however, would be a belated exercise, since, in our own times (roughly since the beginning of the Twentieth century) any such underlying unity to the various sciences, natural and humanistic, has been deemed illusory, with all the troubling philosophical consequences such a fact implies, namely, that there is no unity to the world or cosmos, except as what Kant might term a Regulative Idea….

One might posit that the explanatory ufologist is concerned with the nature of what the UFO witness reports and the hermeneutic ufologist with the witness, the report, and everything that flows from that report. But the provisional clarity won by this distinction is quickly dissipated when we recall Jacques Vallée’s very early observation in his Anatomy of a Phenomenon:  Unidentified Objects in Space—A Scientific Appraisal (1965):

The phenomenon under study is not the UFO, which is not reproducible at will in the laboratory, but the report written by the witness. This report can be observed, studied and communicated by professional scientists; thus defined, the phenomenon we investigate is obviously real. (vii)

 

 

On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”

There has been lately, understandably, some miscomprehension about what I’m up to here at Skunkworks or what I’m on about in my comments at other ufological blogs (mainly UFO Conjectures). The Anomalist (31 July 2019) takes my critique of the view that for some ufophiles fragments of UFOs function like sacred relics of old as turning the question of recent claims made by To The Stars Academy that it has acquired unidentifiable metamaterials “into a philosophical disquisition”, while Rich Reynolds insists on believing I’m trying to “use the ‘techniques’ of philosophical thought to get at the UFO problem” (which for him is only the question of the reality and nature of UFOs).

One of the earliest posts here was titled “Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO”. There I distinguished Scientific Ufology (concerned with the reality, truth, and nature of the UFO) from what I called “Phenomenological” Ufology (that brackets the question of UFO Reality to focus on the UFO Effect, the varied and various ways the UFO is meaningful in culture). The discerning reader will grasp that the latter includes a study of the former, i.e., Scientific Ufology, as an activity carried out by human beings, is one aspect of the UFO Effect, but, more compellingly that the attempt to grasp the reality of the UFO comes up empty-handed, while holding the question of UFO Reality in abeyance is rewarded with a plethora of concrete phenomena for investigation.

It was of course Carl Jung whose own justly-famous thoughts on flying saucers as A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies operated under just this distinction. Since, the UFO-as-cultural-effect has been the subject of study from a wide range of disciplines, from what today is most readily recognizable as Cultural Studies (including anthropology and sociology) in works such as M. J. Banias’ The UFO People, Bridget Brown’s They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves:  The History and Politics of Alien Abduction, Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America, Brenda Denzler’s The Lure of the Edge, and the scholars collected in Deborah Battaglia’s ET Culture, to Folklore (e.g., Thomas Bullard’s The Myth and Mystery of the UFOs and David Clarke’s How UFOs Conquered the World:  The History of a Modern Myth), Religious Studies (e.g., the scholars represented in James R. Lewis’ The Gods Have Landed:  New Religions from Other Worlds, Christopher Partridge’s UFO Religions, or Diana G. Tumminia’s Alien Worlds:  Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact, the dual-authored The Supernatural:  Why the Unexplained is Real by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal, or the single-authored volumes Aliens Adored:  Raël’s UFO Religion by Susan Palmer or American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology by Diane W Pasulka), Art History (e.g., In Advance of the Landing:  Folk Concepts of Outer Space by Douglas Curran and Picturing Extraterrestrials:  Alien Images in Modern Mass Culture by John F. Moffitt), and even Philosophy (e.g., Evolutionary Metaphors:  UFOs, New Existentialism and the Future Paradigm by David J, Moore). Many other approaches and examples are possible.

One might term such studies, variously, “Meta-ufology”, “cultural ufology”, or even “philosophical ufology” if it extends, in the manner of the philosophy of science, to the assumptions and implications in the self-understanding and methodology of Scientific Ufology in particular, and the concepts underwriting or implied by the UFO Effect, in general. Surely, those concerned especially or exclusively with the question of UFO Reality-as-such, as well as the majority of ufophiles or ufomaniacs, will be unmoved and uninterested by the bookshelf I haphazardly list above, but this judgement is hardly any evaluation of the worth of the work. Ironically, not only is Scientific Ufology an object for (let’s call it) Cultural Ufology, i.e., it is subsumed by it, but the cultural ufologist is closer in spirit to the believer, witness or experiencer, as for none of them is the reality of the UFO ever at stake(!).

But most importantly for myself, as any persistent reader of Skunkworks will grasp, it is precisely the teasing and evasive significance of the UFO no less alluring and ungraspable than the thing itself (whatever in fact that may turn out to be) that’s at issue here. Skunkworks is a workshop labouring to design a working version of The Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (or what the German Romantics called for as “a New Mythology”, or William Burroughs as “a mythology for the Space Age”). As a poet, I look to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, for inspiration, which did for classical mythology what might be accomplished for this one. In the meantime, one can only brainstorm, take notes, draw up blueprints and build working models in the hope that one day to get something off the ground.

You can read a copy of one of the prototypes for this project here, and hear it being performed by the author, here. Others I’ve posted here are readable under the “poems” tag.

 

 

 

 

On the launch of MJ Banias’ The UFO People

Monday 29 July 2019, MJ Banias launched his first book, The UFO People, in his hometown of Winnipeg.

I had a commitment of my own that evening, in Montreal, to give a poetry reading at the Accent Reading series. Though I couldn’t help Banias celebrate in person, at least I was able to acknowledge the launch of his book with a performance of the poem “Flying Saucers” from my book Grand Gnostic Central.

Congratulations, MJ! A review of your book is forthcoming (eventually) here at Skunkworks…