Zooming in on the Archives of the Impossible Conference: Day Two (4 March 2022): Whitley Strieber, “Them”

Here, I continue my commentary on the plenary sessions of Rice University’s Archives of the Impossible conference. My notes on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address can be read, here, while those on Diana Pasulka’s plenary address are viewable, here.

Friday, I missed Leslie Kean’s plenary talk, “Physical Impossibilities: From UFOs to Materializations”, but I was eager to catch Whitley Strieber’s, not only because of his reputation, but moreso because he has co-authored a book with Jeffrey Kripal, The Super Natural.

Strieber, being a writer, delivered a relatively eloquent talk, in a mellifluous, cadenced voice. He began, after a series of gracious, thoughtful acknowledgements, confirming the notion Jeffrey Kripal laid out yesterday, that the paranormal is a unified field, underlining the unity of the Visitor experience and the mystery of death, stressing the phenomenon demands to be approached “holistically” and interdisciplinarily.

The body of his discourse was the presentation and analysis of one of the many letters he and his wife received in the wake of Strieber’s publishing Communion, a large number of which are now housed in the Archives of the Impossible. Strieber proposed to read the story the letter related according to the myth of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur: the role of Theseus is played by the family who experience an encounter with the Visitors; the Labyrinth is our dark, confused world; the Minotaur is fear and anger; Ariadne is the consciousness behind and controlling the Visitor experience; and the thread, the process of human perception, the way it domesticates the wildly strange, tempering fear with curiosity. He managed to unfold the letter’s account according to his proposed schema in an easy to follow manner, however unconvincing….

What struck me was Strieber’s stressing how the Visitor experience “is a communication of a kind”, related to the myths of all cultures. Indeed, it’s because Strieber perceives this link between the experience and myths that he ventures to read the letter the way he does, going as far as to claim that an acquaintance with myth is necessary to understand Contact and “the grammar of Communion.” In this regard, Strieber seems to echo Vallée’s contention in his keynote address, that the phenomenon “is not a system but a metasystem”. Someone not unfamiliar with the developments of last century’s literary theory might say it is a language (myth).

Ironically, however much Strieber is at pains to stress the pertinence of our mythological inheritance in understanding Contact, his own acquaintance with the myth he deploys is weak. It’s not the case that Ariadne saves Theseus from the Minotaur by guiding him out of the Labyrinth with her thread, but that her thread enables him to navigate the Labyrinth in order to slay the Minotaur and emerge again. Strieber is correct that Theseus abandons Ariadne after his exploit, but says that she weds Dionysus “the god of joy” and thereby becomes holy, a becoming holy (whole, complete), Strieber maintains, being the “inner aim of Contact”. But by what warrant does Strieber identify Dionysus/Bacchus with “joy”?…

Not only does he betray only a loose acquaintance with the myth he would employ, but, I would argue, he confuses myth with myths. That is, if the Visitor/Contact phenomenon operates at a mythological level, from the point of view of structural mythology, it is not because of how its various narratives might echo other narratives, but because of its structure, which is that of myth. Myth, like language, is a form not a substance. He does seem to unconsciously grasp this approach, when he draws attention to various actions in the letter he analyzes (and, no!, he does not “deconstruct” it!) when he remarks various actions that occur along the vertical axis: one Visitor leaps from a water silo, they appear in the trees, the family ascends to the second story of their home to get a better view of the beings, etc., an observation typical of a structural analysis of myth or narrative. Strieber’s exegesis of the letter is illuminating but, ironically, despite the allegorical machinery he brings to bear….

One must wonder, too, if he were present during Vallée’s presentation and his warnings concerning the truths intelligence agencies relate, as Strieber at one point emphasized how the U.S. government recently admitted that the leaked Tic-Tac and Gimbal videos depicted vehicles of unknown origin….

So, like Jacques Vallée’s keynote address, Whitley Strieber’s contribution, though smoothly delivered and containing some provocative insights, fails to persuade because of, ironically, its weak grasp of essential aspects of its own argument, here the very myth he would use to construct his discourse, if not mythology as such itself….

Sightings: Saturday 26 June 2021: Contact, the Great Silence, and the Preliminary Assessment

Amid the breathless suspense leading up to Friday’s release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP, I spun a discussion thread with a persistent interlocutor around the theory that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft, aka the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis or ETH. In the course of that back and forth, he linked a YouTube video on the matter. Aside from the ETH, the video’s interviewees pursued two lines of thought that touched on other, more urgent concerns…

“Culture Shock”: Kent Monkman’s “The Scream”

It’s a commonplace in ufology and the more scientifically-formal search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to contemplate the consequences of contact between humankind and a much more technologically-advanced extraterrestrial species (not race) in terms of that between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, etc. For example, Tyler Cowen, a student of “Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico”, making the comparison, refers to “the Aztec empire, which met its doom when a technologically superior conqueror showed up: Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards.” The devastating consequences of this encounter are almost always couched in terms of “culture shock”, the approach adopted for instance by Dolan and Zabel in their A.D. After Disclosure.

It is perhaps no accident that those who speak in these terms are white, North American men; how such speculations are framed by interested parties outside this demographic in the rest of the world, I am unsure. What is striking about thinking of the consequences of contact in terms of culture shock is that it passes over if not represses the more painful facts of the matter implied in Stephen Hawking’s more laconic observation: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

The topic is timely because when we Canadians, for example, “look at ourselves” in the light of two fields of unmarked graves recently discovered on the grounds of residential schools what is revealed is that the disruption of the cultures of the First Nations is not so much due to some catastrophic shift in world-view, however radically unsettling, but the overt and covert violence of settler colonialism, i.e., that the very foundation of the Canadian nation state is premissed on the liquidation of the indigenous population as a means to exploiting the natural resources within its borders unhindered. Canada’s First Nations didn’t experience a spiritual crisis encountering the French, Dutch, and English, but have suffered being displaced from their lands and resources through violence or subterfuge and having their children forcefully removed to residential schools whose explicit purpose was summed up by Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-32: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department…” The shock to their culture was the result of intentional cultural genocide.

There is a not unrelated paradoxical irony at play in the way that one will hear in the same breath blithe speculations about civilizations thousands if not a billion years ahead of our own and reflections on “the Great Silence”, that we have yet to discover some bio- or technosignature of extraterrestrial life of a sufficiently-advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

Anyone familiar with the work that goes on here in the Skunkworks will be familiar with the implications of that first idea, but, here, I want to remark two other problems with this notion of so long-lived a civilization. On the one hand, one might ask “Whose culture?”, i.e., how to conceive of a culture or civilization that transcends the life of its biological substrate, the species of which it is a culture; a culture that outlives the species whose culture it is stretches the imagination, even moreso if that substrate is imagined to be transbiological, as such “artificial life” (if it can be said to possess a culture at all) would be more likely to change at an even greater rate than a biological species does under the pressures of natural selection. On the other hand, if we “look at ourselves” we find that one of the longest-lived, continuous cultures on earth is that of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, about 60,000 years. What underwrites the longterm stability of such cultures, however, is their having found a sustainable form of life, one rooted in a more harmonious relation to earth’s life support systems than that ecocidal relation characteristic of the so-called advanced, high-tech societies.

When it comes to the Great Silence, in an early articulation of an idea now termed “the Great Filter”, Sagan and Shklovsky in 1966 accounted for it by proposing that perhaps “it is the fate of all such civilizations to destroy themselves before they are much further along,” Unlike the pattern of repression that characterizes thoughts about contact, in this case UFO discourse has been explicitly related to existential threats to human civilization if not homo sapiens itself, from Jung’s proposals in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky to George Adamski‘s Venusians and Klaatu of the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still to recently revived stories of UFOs interfering with nuclear missiles to Vallée’s and Harris’ recent Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret the UFO has been associated with the danger posed by the advent and proliferation of nuclear weapons. More recently, beginning especially with the growing number of abduction stories in the 1980s, the mythology has come to weave itself into the more general ecological crisis, with abductees reporting they have been shown scenes of environmental destruction (a theme taken up by the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still). Unsurprisingly, e.g., believers in and proponents of Disclosure (official transparency about the reality of and longstanding relations with extraterrestrial civilizations) maintain that zero-point or free-energy extraterrestrial technology can replace our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels. However much the UFO orbits these existential threats, the fantasies this association gives rise to by way of solutions are as weighty as the angel hair that used to fall from the flying saucers: either the extraterrestrial intervention is prophetic (revealing a truth, however much we already know it) or the solution to the problems technological development brings with it is just more technology. In either case, it seems, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to the social order than underwrites present-day technological change, capitalism.

In all these speculations about technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations one can discern a play of revelation and concealment. On the one hand, thoughts about contact or the Great Silence relate and are related to mundane, human matters: the history of colonization during the Age of (so-called) Discovery or the resilience and sustainability of culture and civilization especially under the strain of increasing ecological pressures. On the other hand, on inspection, these reflections betray a repressed, social content that is the mark of the ideological. The (on-going) material violence of European colonization becomes a merely spiritual shock; “civilization” is abstracted from the bodies of the civilized, as if it might be possessed of some immaterial immortality, while, simultaneously, the real, long-lived cultures on earth are overlooked precisely because their form of life contradicts the self-estimation of the advanced societies as having superseded these more primitive contemporaries (i.e., precisely that these cultures are our contemporaries, that they are, therefore, no less modern than ourselves is what must be denied); and the solution to the problems “development” causes is thought to be ever more development, reinforcing the status quo at the base of the problem.

Just as UFOs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) appear to fly free of gravity and the physical laws of inertia and momentum, so too the thinking about or related to them frees itself from the material base (society, culture, and nature) of its ideas to flit around as nimbly, but, just as the countless stories of UFOs might be said to constitute a myth, a collective dream, the truth of these speculations is no less their grave, unconscious, repressed, all-too-earthly content.

As for that preliminary assessment on UAP? What of it? Here’s something on a leaked draft of a report on an arguably more urgent matter…