“…news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome…”

Of recent developments in the ufological sphere, two stand out to me: the release of a huge cache of CIA documents on UFOs and the prepublication promotion of astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book on Oumuamua and related matters. I was moved to address Loeb’s recent claims (you can hear him interviewed by Ryan Sprague here and hear him speak on the topic last spring here), but, since I have addressed the essential drift of Loeb’s speculations, however curtly, and I’m loathe to tax the patience of my readers or my own intellectual energies rehearsing the driving thesis here at Skunkworks yet again, I want to probe a not unrelated matter, an ingredient of the ufological mix since the earliest days of the modern era.

This post’s title is taken from a longer passage from Carl Jung’s ufological classic Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. In the preface, Jung observes:

In 1954, I wrote an article in the Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, in which I expressed myself in a sceptical way, though I spoke with due respect of the serious opinion of a relatively large number of air specialists who believe in the reality of Ufos…. In 1958 this interview was suddenly discovered by the world press and the ‘news’ spread like wildfire from the far West round the Earth to the far East, but—alas—in distorted form. I was quoted as a saucer-believer. I issued a statement to the United Press and gave a true version of my opinion, but this time the wire went dead:  nobody, so far as I know, took any notice of it, except one German newspaper.

The moral of this story is rather interesting. As the behaviour of the press is sort of a Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable. To believe that Ufos are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.

Loeb’s recent experience harmonizes with Jung’s. Loeb recounts around the 22:00′ mark in his interview with Sprague that when he and his collaborator published their paper arguing for the possible artificial origins of Oumuamua, they experienced a “most surprising thing”, that, despite not having arranged for any publicity for their paper, it provoked “a huge, viral response from the media…”

There are, of course, myriad reasons for the media phenomenon experienced by both Jung and Loeb. An important aspect of their shared historical horizon, however, suggests the ready, public fascination for the idea of extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations springs from an urgent source. Jung, famously, however correctly, argued that flying saucers’ appearing in the skies just at the moment the Iron Curtain came down had to do precisely with the new, mortal threat of atomic war, that, from his psychological perspective, flying saucers were collective, visionary mandalas, whose circular shape made whole, at least to the visionary imagination, what humankind had split asunder in fact. Though we live now after the Cold War, the cognoscenti are quick to remind us the threat of nuclear war remains, a threat along with increasingly acute environmental degradation and global warming. There’s a grim synchronicity in Loeb’s book’s appearing hot on the heels of the publication of a widely-publicized paper in the journal Frontiers of Conservation Science titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.”

Just how do such anxieties arguably underwrite the desire to discover other “advanced” societies? Jung was right, I think, in seeing the appearance of “flying saucers from outer space” as compensating for the worries of his day. Rather than affirming the phenomenon’s dovetailing into his theory of archetypes, however, I would argue that the very idea of UFOs’ being from an advanced, technological civilization, an interpretation put forward spontaneously by the popular, scientific, and military understanding, is a response to the growing concern over the future of the earth’s so-called advanced societies. Such evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence seems to confirm that technology (as we know it) and the kind of intelligence that gives rise to it are not the result of a local, accidental coupling of natural history (evolution) and cultural change (history proper) but that of more universal regularities, echoing, perhaps, however faintly, those cosmically universal natural laws that govern physics and chemistry. That such intelligence and civilizations spring up throughout the stars suggests, furthermore, they all share the same developmental vector, from the primitive to the advanced, and that, if such regularities hold, then just as our visitors are more advanced than we are, then we, too, like them, might likewise negotiate the mortal threats that face our own civilization, enabling us to reach their heights of knowledge and technological prowess. That we might learn just such lessons from extraterrestrial civilizations we might contact has been one explicit argument for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The very idea, then, of a technologically-advanced civilization embodies a faith that technology can solve the problems technology produces, one whose creed might be said to reword Heidegger’s final, grave pronouncement that “Only a god can save us”, replacing ‘god’ with ‘technology’. What’s as remarkable as it is unremarked is how this tenet of faith is shared equally by relatively mainstream figures, such as Loeb, Diana W. Pasulka, and SETI researchers, and more outré folk, such as Jason Reza Jorjani, Steven Greer, and Raël/Claude Vorilhon.

Conversely, discovering the traces of extraterrestrial civilizations that have failed to meet the challenges ours faces could prove no less significant, as Loeb himself has proposed: “…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.” Aside from the weakness of this speculation, the idea of such failed civilizations is based on the same assumptions as the idea of successful ones, thereby revealing their being ideological (positing a social order as natural). Imagine all we ever were to discover were extraterrestrial societies that had succumbed to war, environmental destruction, or some other form of self-annihilation. Technological development would then seem to entail its own end. Indeed, that this might very well be the case has been proposed as one explanation for “The Great Silence”, why we have yet to encounter other, extraterrestrial civilizations. We might still cling to the hope that humankind might prove the exception, that it might learn from all these other failures (à la Loeb), or we might adopt a pessimistic fatalism, doing our best despite being convinced we are ultimately doomed. In either case, advanced technological society modelled after one form of society on earth is projected as unalterable, inescapable, and universal. The pessimistic conception of technological advancement, a blinkered reification of a moment in human cultural history, arguably expresses from a technoscientific angle the sentiment of Fredric Jameson’s famous observation: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

The consequences of this technofetishism are manifold. However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.

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.