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…