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.

 

What’s money got to do with it?

Over at UFO Conjectures, Rich Reynolds gets ye olde brain juices flowing, where he fires off a barrage of squibs at the oft-heard refrain that ufologists are “just in it for the money.” However well-taken his intended point, his rhetoric gets the better of him, when he claims, inspired by the Muse Hyperbole, that “No one makes or has ever made real money by exploiting the enigma to make big bucks…”

As long as his thesis concerns ufologists or journalists and writers who produce strictly ufological material, then, I think, there’s little to argue with. On the other hand, to claim that no one has profited off the UFO phenomenon (“the enigma”) will surely inspire a wry grin on Chris Carter‘s face and an urgent anxiety on the part of the producers of History‘s various UFO-related shows to conceal this fact from their overseers. If the arts can contribute billions of dollars to a nation’s GDP, it would be an interesting exercise to determine how much money UFO-themed books, films, television, and sundry commodities have generated in even only the United States since 1947.

But, then, a related and more provocative question concerns how monetization, the profit motive, the commodity form—in a word, capitalism—might be said to determine the social form of the phenomenon, i.e., how “the enigma” appears in the public sphere. Here, it’s possible only to sketch in a few offhand examples; a proper answer would demand a short, dense treatise that would give the editor of D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic a blinding migraine.

Reynolds points to, for example, “the prolific writer Nick Redfern” for whom “[money] is not his motivation for writing but a meager means of economic survival; his books just keeping his head above water.” I take it Reynolds sees Redfern’s very impressive output as an index of a somewhat impractical fascination (rather than a need, to keep his head above water) harnessed to a disciplined work ethic, i.e., despite his impressive labour and productivity, Redfern can hardly claim to have made a bundle on the UFO beat, which is all well-taken.

However, it’s no less true that as professional writer Redfern (like journalists Leslie Kean, Helene Cooper, or Ralph Blumenthal) has to pitch his articles and books and write them a certain way so that his publishers, in whatever media, will feel assured of sufficient clicks if not sales. His writing must be produced in a predetermined manner (German critical theorist Theodor Adorno would say “schematized”) ultimately out of his control for it to be accepted and published by those who own the means of (book) production and distribution, digital or otherwise. However meagre his wages, he still exchanges the product of his labour for money, an exchange that occurs under conditions not entirely of his choosing, but dictated by (what his publishers make of) the market.

Pasulka’s book, mentioned above, is another example. Diana Walsh Pasulka is a professional scholar, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. American Cosmic:  UFOs, religion, technology (Oxford University Press, 2019) addresses a germane topic, the religious sentiments the UFO phenomenon inspires in the otherwise worldly and secular in confluence with their (equally religious) fascination with technology. No less impressively, she brings to bear Martin Heidegger‘s thinking on the essence of technology.

Pasulka’s promising study, however, underwent a thorough editing. As the author remarks, “it got edited about, oh, I don’t know, a million times and a lot of stuff taken out.” Whatever was academic or scholarly is shorn away, diction, argument, analysis, critique, even a bibliography or works cited. So, instead of a solid, potentially groundbreaking work (that would have sold likely all of hundreds of copies to fellow scholars and university libraries), Oxford University Press (for cryin’ out loud) published a book with a popular appeal, a kind of travelogue that creates a story within which moments of watered-down learning and reflection appear as rest stops, about as interesting and as deeply explored, which attained a much more profound market penetration. In a word, Pasulka’s labour had to subject to be schematized as a condition of its publication and distribution.

What is true for Redfern and Pasulka is true for the producers of UFO documentaries, whether History’s Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation or Jeremy Corbell’s 2018 Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers, which are both shaped (schematized) by the demands of being produced, distributed, and consumed in a social space determined by the profit motive (regardless of their ultimate, unforeseeable profitability…). One could easily extend this analysis to the dominance of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis in UFO-themed entertainment…

Those obsessed with UFO fact (ufology), if they are motivated by the entrepreneurial spirit, like those behind To The Stars Academy, are very likely to have their dreams of untold lucre dashed. Those who aspire to be the next Chris Carter can at least harbour more realistic hopes. But, in either—and in every—case, where the producer (the writer) must sell their work to an owner of the means of production and distribution subject to the profit motive, that work must be revised and repackaged (schematized) to maximize sales as the very condition of its appearing in the world at all.