Course Correction: On Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part III: Reflections

Here, I complete my extended report on Limina’s inaugural symposium. The first main division, an overview, can be read here. The second main division reports on and responds to presentations given by historian Greg Eghigian (here), religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal (here), and philosopher Babette Babich (here).

Anyone who has diligently (or, hopefully, curiously) read so far will note that I engage with only three of the symposium’s two dozen talks, presentations, and panels. Moreover, those three all occured on the event’s first day, devoted to the more-or-less humanistic aspect of UFO/UAP study. This focus will strike many “UFO people” as perverse, given that their overwhelming interest is in the mystery or question of the reality of the phenomenon (as Jung observed long ago, “news affirming the existence of the UFOs is welcome“). Their interest would be satisfied far more by the majority of the symposium’s presentations, which involved “scientific” approaches to the study of the phenomenon and, on the third day, specific cases. But, as I am neither a physicist nor astronomer, nor a researcher in the mold of Kevin Randle or Chris Rutkowski, for example, I’m in no position to engage with these presentations like I do those of Eghigian, Kripal, or Babich, whose talks addressed topics of interest to me here at the Skunkworks and that do fall within my wheelhouse if not expertise. That being said, I will sketch out the remainder of the participants’ contributions here for those disappointed (or frustrated…) by my treatment so far before reflecting on the symposium as a whole.

Of those presentations on the symposium’s first day, I have passed over four. That by Prof. Gabriel G. de la Torre, “Obsessed With UAPs [sic]: Psychological Aspects of the Phenomena”, though very germane to the remainder of the long weekend’s discussions, I did not attend as I had actually already written on its central thesis. That by Prof. Tim Murithi (“UAP, Truth Embargo and Amnesty Provisions: The Prospects for a Transitional Justice Approach”) I passed over due to its indulging the presuppositions of the Disclosure movement (interested parties can see him interviewed in the YouTube video linked in the post, here). Likewise, the presentation of Jinwoo Yu and Prof. Sunglyul Maeng, “A Silver Lining to Conservatism Towards Ufology”, despite the title, focussed primarily on UFO research in Korea and would have been as much at home on the symposium’s third day. Finally, as an organizer/participant, I’m not really in a position to remark on that day’s panel organized by myself and Michael Zimmerman, peopled by Prof. Babette Babich, Dr. Jacob Haqq-MisraAssoc. Prof. Stephen Finley, and Prof. Kevin H. Knuth, despite it lively and pertinent contribution to the symposium’s conversation.

As I remarked, the symposium’s second day focussed on questions of how to bring “hard” scientific research to bear on UAP. Prof. Dr. Hakan Kayal spoke on “UAP research at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg”, research both condoned and supported by the university institution and part of its curriculum. Philippe R. C. Ailleris, Prof. Matthew Szydagis, and Prof. Wesley Watters all reported on their research efforts. Of these, Szydagis, speaking on behalf of his UAPx team, was the most impressive (to me) by virtue of the energetic, self-critical vigilance of he and his team, which spoke both to their level-headed cautiousness and seriousness. Prof. Joaquim FernandesFrancisco Mourão Corrêa, and Prof. Raul Berenguel introduced the Portuguese research initiative STELLAR–International Observatory of Anomalous Phenomena and their research into the Fatima Event (more on that, later). Dr. Beatriz Villarroel brought astronomical research to bear, in the efforts of the VASCO project (“Searching for ET Probes with Vanishing & Appearing Sources (VASCO) During ‘A Century of Observations’ Project”). Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra returned to the topic of Carl Sagan, with what struck me as more a foray into establishment science’s responses to the topic of UFOs. Finally, Dr. Silvano Colombano explained “A Machine Learning Methodology for Filtering and Classifying Unformatted Natural Language Reports”. These presentations all explored the methodologies, logistics, and nuts-and-bolts of research conducted in the field rather than the library and study. Despite the recent upsurge in public interest; renewed, overt official investigation; and even institutional sanction (such as that at the University of Würzburg), all that day’s speakers, almost without exception, spoke of the struggle and need for funding, a situation that confirmed Babette Babich’s proposals concerning the way knowledge-as-such is legitimated as much through its institutional support as by any theory or evidence brought to the table.

Prof. Daniel Coumbe gave the third day’s keynote address, “Anomaly: Searching for a Black Swan Event”, wherein he presented in nuce his recently published Anomaly: A Scientific Exploration of the UFO Phenomenon (reviewed here and here)), which formulates a UAP case rating system and applies it to four paradigmatic cases: the Japanese Airlines Cargo Flight 1628 sighting; the Ubatuba, Brazil, UFO fragments; the Lonnie Zamora close encounter at Socorro, New Mexico; and the Aguadilla object observed at Rafael Hernandez International Airport, Puerto Rico. This latter incident was the showcase of the day, scrutinized (however differently) by  Mick West (“Extracting Lines of Sight and Reconstructing Object Motion from Noisy Video Data”) and Robert M. Powell (“An Analysis of the April 25, 2013 Aguadilla, Puerto Rico IR Video”). After a break, the day’s second session shifted focus to speculations concerning the nature of UAP themselves, first, with Prof. Dr. Karl Svozil posing the question “Is Revising Inertia The Key to Zigzag Motion and ‘Anti-Gravity’?” in his delightfully energetic if somewhat “rhizomatic” presentation that outran its allotted time. Dr. Massimo Teodorani (who will be giving a number of not unrelated lectures in the near future) then shared his research on the Hessdalen Lights, “Testing the Possible Propulsion Mechanism of UAPs [sic]”. The day ended with a third session, wherein Prof. Kevin H. Knuth examined “Evidence Suggesting that Some UAPs are Advanced Non-Human Craft” and an extended conversation between journalists Leslie KeanRalph BlumenthalAndreas MüllerRoss Coulthart, and George Knapp.

Limina’s inaugural symposium was an important event, both as a gathering of varied and disparate researchers, the majority of whom are academically credentialed (important in itself, as Babich would be the first observe) and as the launching point for that research that will be gathered and chronicled between the covers of Limina: the Journal of UAP Studies, the newest of those very few peer-reviewed journals devoted to the topic. Nevertheless, as an opening of the field, the thinking at the conference was determined in a number of ways by the horizon within which it appeared.

First, participants and attendees both were often given to a certain credulity when it comes to just what might be said to constitute the phenomenon in general. I’ve already remarked this tendency in Jeffrey Kripal’s talk and Tim Murithi’s presentation. More generally, the conference tended to orbit a more-or-less uncritical acceptance of the mythology’s latest episode, namely that set forth in the New York Times articles of 2017 and the attendant leak of the three famous U.S. Navy videos. This tendency was most (increasingly irritatingly to me) on display in the symposium’s final event, the panel of journalists Kean, Blumenthal, Müller, Coulthart, and Knapp. All, whether sincerely or out of self-interest or some mixture of both, enthusiastically endorsed the stories they had written in this respect (n.b. Knapp is a co-author of the self-published Skinwalkers at the Pentagon and likely more famous for his “breaking” the Bob Lazar story). But, worse, they no-less enthusiastically endorsed rumours of metamaterials and the retrieval of crashed UAP. The problem—aside from the belief system at work here–is that all these stories are based on hearsay, just as all the putative “evidence” set forth by the Disclosure Movement.

That the panel’s journalists should hold forth what they did is not incomprehensible. In his book Revelations (1991 (!)), Jacques Vallée was curious “to find out what it was that had led so many of [his journalist] friends to believe such things… They were hardworking reporters who claimed to have solid, first-hand human sources. And some of their sources were said to be government agents and other officials who existed in the flesh.” In trying to satisfy his curiosity, Vallée observes that his friends depended on those sources for their stories, sources of “privileged information…[that] you are afraid to be cut off from… if you offend” them (emphasis in the original). I do not intend to impugn the professionalism of any member of the journalists’ panel, but I question the relatively unreserved acceptance of the stories they tell, especially in an academic forum, regardless of how methodologically agnostic.

Not unrelated to this reflexive set of beliefs is the all-too-ready acceptance of the more historically-sanctioned Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Throughout—from Babich’s immediate, untroubled association of UAP and ETs, to Murithi’s assumptions, to Svozil’s and Knuth’s explicit speculations—the ETH haunted the proceedings like an otherwise unremarked participant or attendee. It was only Greg Eghigian who ably parsed the two ideas, to the incomprehension of many in attendance (as evidenced by the chat stream). As usual, I do not call the “hypothesis” itself into question, but merely observe that de facto flying saucers and intelligent extraterrestrial beings came to be associated ufologically only after the fact however much they were already associated in the popular imagination long before June 1947, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Psychosocial Hypothesis will know. Readers here will know, too, there are other grounds to question the ETH, more cultural critical, philosophical-conceptual grounds, but, be that as it may, it was striking how the ETH enjoyed an even deeper, more unconscious, ready acceptance than the more overt inflections of the UFO mythology I remark above.

These two features of the proceedings suggest what was lacking to correct or at least balance them. First, the only “skeptic” participant was Mick West, who handled himself ably and was well-received. The input of more such level-headed, respectful skeptics is needed to at least problematize those views and narratives that otherwise go insufficiently scrutinized. Skepticism of this sort is also rooted in an acquaintance with the history of the phenomenon. For example, Daniel Coumbe examines two cases—JAL 1628 and that of Lonnie Zamora—both possessed of a large body of commentary (of, admittedly, various quality) that considerably complicates the matter. When historical cases are presented, a literature review, however labour-intensive and downright tiresome, is called for. The presence of, e.g., researcher Kevin Randle would have been valuable in this regard, as the author of a fairly recent book on the Zamora case. The STELLAR team’s presentation on Fatima is another case in point.

This final contention underlines the importance (import) of the historicity of the phenomenon probed to some extent in Eghigian’s keynote address. That is to say, that contemporary research—humanistic, “scientific”, or journalistic—neither falls immaculate from heaven nor starts from a blank slate (experience always falls upon a “never barren imagination”, as Greg Eghigian observed) but is possessed of an “historical-conceptual unconcious” that determines its thinking and questions abyssally, i.e. to a depth that can never finally be plumbed or brought to light (consciousness). What is needed then is a persistent, scrupulous “desedimentation”, Destruktion, or “deconstruction” (in these rigorous senses), conceptual-philosophical, historiographical, and historical-materialist / ideological-critical at least. Such labour might well serve to undermine our existing schemes of knowledge and methodology and enable them to uproot themselves from the ground that keeps them from ascending to those new heights of understanding where they might meet UAP in their own element.

Course Correction: On Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part II (iii)

The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here. The previous posts Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian can be read here and Part II: Engaging with… (ii) Jeffrey Kripal, here.

Part II: Engaging with… (iii) Babette Babich

Where Jeffrey Kripal’s talk challenged the understanding because of its being, strictly, an essay (as an attempt, an experiment, an exploration…), Babette Babich’s presentation “Towards A Philosophy of Science of Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena” presented a different kind of difficulty. Babich, by her own admission, is a Nietzschean, and anyone acquainted with the German philosopher’s style and, even more pertinently, Babich’s own Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Science (SUNY, 1994) can well imagine the concinnity her lecture demanded. That is to say, Babich’s discourse, like Nietzsche’s writing, keeps readers on their toes, requiring they dance along with her elusive, litotic irony that ensures we’re never sure if the various proposals and positions she puts forth should or can be taken as her own, or just how they might be taken to relate to some thesis whose “truth” she seeks to explain and defend. Thus, as in Kripal’s paper, we cannot “fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics.” Regrettably, for all its erudition, insight, provocation, and dazzle, Babich’s presentation, like a number during the symposium, was too long for its allotted time, so that she was able to get through only about half of what she had prepared.

With my characterization of Babich’s rhetoric firmly in mind, let’s essay some reconstruction of her presentation. In her Introduction, she says (to paraphrase) that a philosophy of a science of UAP is no more likely than a philosophy of the science of acupuncture, however much acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, and even homeopathy are “sciences”, homeopathy having a longer pedigree than the concept of the virus. In making such a claim, Babich appears to adopt a cultural relativist, anthropologically-informed philosophy of science, invoking as she does Bruno Latour and Paul Feyerabend, whose work underlined the social-embeddedness of science, a critique that was answered not in the forum of reasoned, academic debate but by their work’s being institutionally “ghosted” after their deaths (or such is Babich’s claim…), ironically lending credence to their theses. The kind of philosophy of science informing Babich’s perspective(s) is discerned in her observing that it is having a theory, a scheme of explanation, and funding that make astronomy a science vs astrology. In the same vein, Pluto’s status as a planet is merely a question of convention, not of some “real” property of the heavenly body. A possible science of UAP therefore depends upon the interest (in several senses) of the existing scientific establishment for it to be recognized as a science. However, science concerns itself with phenomena deemed legitimate by their being in certain regards always-already explained; unexplained phenomena (UAP) are therefore by definition “damned” and not a possible object for scientific investigation.

The Nietzschean logic of Babich’s talk is brought into stark relief by the title of her talk’s first section, proper: Philosophy of Science and the Proposition, If the Moon is Made of ‘Green Cheese’ What Follows? What follows and how to follow her thinking here, indeed. The point of this brief disquistion on logical entailment was, to my understanding, left hanging. It introduced or at the very least preceded a discussion of Analytic Philosopher T. Patrick Rardan’s article “A Rational Approach to the UFO Problem”, which postulates a nearby solar system and assumes that technology improves linearly as opposed to via scientific revolutions or leaps, that ETs need travel to us as we might travel to them, which is implausible, given present technology. For Babich, if ETs travel to earth, they would not do so using “technology”, especially ironically aerodynamic craft, such as those often reported (saucer, cigar, and triangle shaped). Rather, Babich imagines as a thought experiment UAP and their pilots as belonging to “the invisible realm”, transcending the visible EM spectrum consistent with observations of orbs, such as those mentioned in Kripal’s talk in his allusions to Skinwalkers at the Pentagon.

Babich’s seemingly unreflected association of UAP with “intelligent” extraterrestrial life was representative of a fairly universal inclination of the symposium’s participants and attendees. As the designated responder to Eghigian’s keynote address, she objected to his dating the advent of the phenomenon in 1947 as both classical writers and Enlightenment philosophers had all explicitly speculated about life on other worlds, but by what warrant do UAP necessarily imply extraterrestrial life? This association of ideas ran as a red thread through her presentation.

Picking up a thread in Kripal’s talk, the next section of Babich’s presentation addressed the topic of the Philosophy of Science and UAPs [sic] as a Subset of Occult Phenomena. Here, in harmony with Kripal and a number of participants and attendees, Babich stated that UAPhenomena have been documented “for centuries or millennia”. She played on the phenomenality of UAP, how phenomena as mere appearances have “weak ontological credentials” when it comes to philosophy and science. UAP, she says, are a matter of belief, though it was unclear to me how this proposition followed. The Platonic (as opposed to the Kantian, let alone the Phenomenological) distinction between appearance and true being was invoked, Plato famously rejecting the empirical as a means of gaining access to knowledge, this Platonic position contrasting with the epistemology that greeted the leaked Navy videos, which appeared as empirical confirmation of UAP, however much their acceptance as such is more an assent to an argument from authority. For her part, Babich posits that the belief in UAP is justified because of the long pedigree of their being reported (“for centuries and millennia”). However, despite our being in possession of data and hypotheses, UAP still stand in need of a scientific revolution as a condition for their finding a place in our knowledge as something that can be known.

Regrettably, as I note, around this point, Babich ran out of the allotted time for her presentation and had to cursorily summarize her remaining points. If there was any conclusion to be drawn from her performance, the sophisticated virtuosity of which my presentation here hardly does justice, it was that a philosophy of science of UAP is not forthcoming

Course Correction: on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part II (ii)

The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here. The previous post, Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian, can be read here.

Part II: Engaging with… (ii) Jeffrey Kripal

The next talk of interest to me was Prof. Jeffrey Kripal‘s “Why We Will Never Explain the UFO: The History of Apophatic Mystical Literature as Guide”. Kripal’s style of address, and often that of his writing, leans more to the personal and casual than the impersonal and formal characteristic of most academic language. This manner has its rhetorical advantages, claims hover between theses and opinions, and drawbacks, as the line of argument meanders and spirals in a way that evades summation and, to a point, analysis (however much Babette Babich might disagree). Kripal’s discourse finds a precursor and perhaps some legitimation in Heidegger’s later writings. For example, Heidegger opens “The Question Concerning Technology” thusly: “In what follows we shall be questioning… Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is a way of thinking.” Adorno and Lukács might be said to have expressed a similar sentiment when they observed echoing Hegel that “the truth is in the process.”

That being said, it wouldn’t be unfair to summarize and further reflect on the salient themes of Kripal’s talk. His (a?) central thesis seems to be that the UFO phenomenon transcends the disciplinary organization of knowledge into the natural sciences and the humanities, their presuppositions and methodologies at present being inappropriate to grasping the nature of the phenomenon. This point is made in several ways. If we oversimplify and peg the natural sciences as being concerned with objectivity and the humanities with human subjectivity then UFOs “violate, offend, or transcend the very divisions we make between subject and object.” The phenomenon is objective (e.g., “fighter jet videos, photographs, alleged metamaterials, apparent advanced propulsion methods, and landing marks”) and subjective (“close encounters, multiple and coordinated visual sightings, altered states of consciousness, visionary displays, and experienced traumatic or transcendent abductions”). As Kripal at another point says, “one can slice up the UFO phenomenon into the scientific, the humanistic, or even the historical, but one will never understand it by doing so [as] it bears a particular power to challenge or just abolish our present order of knowledge and its arbitrary divisions.” The UFO, then, is both/neither objective and subjective. To paraphrase, the UFO is not a simple object subject to explanation with dualistic logic, grammar, or science, but lies outside the present order of knowledge, whose secular and scientistic categories are insufficient. The UFO will never be explained, because “the UFO is not something that can be explained in our human, cognitive, sense-based ways of knowing. [It is possessed of] an ontology that is neither mental nor material but both at the same time.” As Kripal gnomically sums up his argument: “the radar is real, so is the revelation.”

Peripheral but not unrelated to Kripal’s main point are others by turns germane and troubling. After a fashion, Kripal localizes the phenomenon and his own relation to it. He engaged the topic first as a religious studies scholar in 2004, a perspective that catches sight of the topic first in the context of West Coast New Age culture. Indeed, Kripal makes the cryptic if suggestive remark that Kenneth Arnold’s “family history sounds very theosophical [Theosophical?].” He then observes the continental presence of the phenomenon—the cases of Betty and Barney Hill (in New England), UFOs over nuclear missile silos (in North Dakota), and the Chicago O’Hare Airport sighting—before underlining the importance of the American Southwest (with a special nod to Jacques Vallée’s recent research into the Trinity case), and affirming that “Indigenous communities are filled with UFO lore”. The more skeptically-minded will have their worst fears confirmed when Kripal speaks about the “stunning accounts” related in Hunt for the Skinwalker (or Skinwalkers at the Pentagon?), as he seems to accept all these reports and stories at face value.

And it’s at just this point (or what I’m tempted to term a brisure) that Kripal’s position becomes troubling. Referring to Hunt for the Skinwalker or Skinwalkers at the Pentagon, Kripal quotes one of its authors, Colm Kelleher, as theorizing that “the human witness [is] a kind of biochemical readout instrument,” which Kripal restates: “the most sophisticated piece of technology on the planet to detect nonhuman or superhuman presences…is the human body, brain, and being.” To position the human body in this way is both promising and problematic, as the body is the site where object and subject intersect. Considered as a “biochemical readout instrument” or “sophisticated piece of technology” the body is a being among other beings, an object, subject to natural scientific and forensic investigation; as a source of experience and subsequent testimony (“anecdotes”), the body is a subject. Kripal is at pains to defend the value of the subjective, experience and anecdote, over against its dismissal by the natural sciences. He protests that “every human experience after all is technically anecdotal…There is no science or mathematics, no literature, language, art, or religion, and there is certainly no UFO without that human subject… Why are we not talking about the experiences of those human witnesses?”

The obvious answer to Kripal’s rhetorical (?) question is given by Kripal himself: “the UFO is not something that can be explained in our human, cognitive, sense-based ways of knowing,” i.e., by means of the natural sciences and their physicalist or positivist presuppositions. In the absence of indisputable or at least sufficient objective physical or forensic confirmation (and the cases, “accounts”, and “lore” Kripal submits are all questionable in this respect), reports of experiences can be taken as only reports of experiences. From the subject-centred, humanistic side, such data is legitimate and significant as sites of meaning, a meaning whose truth-value is shielded from the dubitable or ungraspable (to be charitable) physical evidence, because it is methodologically bracketed from the question of the cause of the experience so that that meaning might be studied for its own sake. This methodological move, however, seems itself to be suspended by Kripal in his taking the cases he submits at face value as factually true.

And it is here that Kripal’s avowed agnosticism (the explicit “first thesis” of his talk is that “No one is expert here;” no one can claim to know) begs for a more explicit conceptual elucidation. The contradiction I outline above (the UFO is objectively dubitable, but subjects’ experiences can claim according to Kripal more than strictly subjective, anecdotal truth) is a contradiction only within disciplinary or epistemological terms that Kripal would suspend (the UFO phenomenon challenges or abolishes “our present order of knowledge and its arbitrary divisions”). However, in one regard, his thinking here is caught in the aporia of the deconstructive logic (in the rigorous sense) of the violent hierarchy that determines his discourse. The natural sciences with their knowledge of objects is set over against the humanistic disciplines and their grasp of the meaning of experience for human subjects; the present order of knowledge privileges the former term, epistemically, institutionally, etc.; Kripal, however, would at least seek to elevate the latter term: the knowledge of the object is itself grounded on the subject: ”There is no science or mathematics, no literature, language, art, or religion, and there is certainly no UFO without that human subject.” But, at the same time, attempting to legitimize the subject-as-body, as “biochemical readout instrument” or “sophisticated piece of technology”, the human subject as a legitimate source of data is grounded on the physical, medical and forensic, sciences. Kripal perhaps intuits this double-bind when he says, “Whatever [the phenomenon] is it simply does not behave according to our rules or philosophical assumptions—any of them.” But even this thesis itself needs be defended and demonstrated, a legitimation that itself can only occur within the context of the assumptions Kripal would suspend. More charitably, Kripal might be said to be positing that the UFO phenomenon negates our present order of knowlege. In the first place, the phenomenon as such is possessed of an indubitable positivity; it is objective and subjective, as Kripal says. However, as a mystery that resists being understood, explained, or “explained away” (at least for the moment), either by, e.g., some version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis or as eventually some new, e.g., plasma, phenomenonon, the UFO resists being known. This negation of our philosophical and epistemic assumptions demands in turn a “negation of the negation”, a reordering of our knowledge that would prove sufficient to give us some knowledge of the phenomenon, a reordering presumably the other side of what Kripal takes to be the categories of “objective” and “subjective”.

But what persistently bothers me about Kripal’s positions is their apparently shallow philosophical foundations. To transcend the “arbitrary” disciplinary articulation of “our present order of knowledge” demands more than merely leaving that knowledge formation behind. On the one hand, the rhizomatic dispersal of the modes of “scientific” knowing (and here I include all “sciences”, natural, social, and humanistic) isn’t “arbitrary” (however concretely dogmatic it might become…): the division of investigative labour is precisely the practice that has underwritten the expansion of knowledge since the Scientific Revolution. On the other, the countermovement to both this dispersal and the ascendancy of the natural sciences is one long underway. The modern (Humboldtian) university originates in the attempt to unify this dissolution of the unity of knowledge. Moreover, “interdisciplinarity” has been at the heart of those projects—from Jena Romanticism and German Idealism to Deconstruction and the present-day academy—that take up the self-critical spirit of the Enlightenment. The defense of “experience” finds its first hero in Wilhelm Dilthey at the end of the Nineteenth Century and an ally in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and latter- and present-day phenomenologists, and the philosophical and sociological project to unify what the university departments have sundered is undertaken by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas, respectively. This is all to say that, in one regard (and this point was made in one of the responses to Kripal’s talk), all objects, not just unidentified flying ones, are dissolved into their various possible aspects by the sciences. At the same time, the problem of how to negotiate this dissolution and to recover a unity that is assumed by the sciences and experience is one that has been worked on for centuries and must be worked through. Kripal’s point that the UFO demands novel thought and investigation is therefore well-taken, but knowledge demands a reflexive and transcendent moment, a self-critical reflection that opens a way beyond the aporiae of the incongruity between modes of knowledge and their object that block progress. It is my thesis that there exist not inconsiderable philosophical resources, conceptual and argumentative, that have yet to be investigated and exploited.

Course Correction: on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part II (i)

The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here.

Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian

As remarked above, the symposium opened with a bang, historian Greg Eghigian’s keynote address, “The Flying Saucer Chronicles: Reflections on the History of Our Fascination with UFOs and Alien Contact”. I can’t hope to do justice to Eghigian’s sustantive and eloquent discourse, but I can cobble together some its striking, salient points from my excitedly scribbled notes.

As a historian, Eghegian is concerned not so much with the being or nature of whatever might be said to be the cause of witness reports but the entire Flying Saucer/UFO/UAP phenomenon considered culturally: in his words, society’s “collective response makes up the phenomenon.” From this point of view, a history of the UFO is “the [hi]story of the story of the phenomenon,” the phenomenon, “a mirror to society” (however much it is itself part of that society…). As long recognized, flying saucers appear first in the context of the Cold War, the earliest reports of meeting their pilots relate they had come to warn humankind of the dangers of nuclear energy and atomic war, and, later, anxieties about developments in reproductive technology find expression in the abduction reports of the 1980s, an historical inflection probed in detail in Eghigian’s address.

A contentious if germane consequence of Eghegian’s self-consciously historiographical stance is that the phenomenon begins strictly in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting report and the journalistic coinage of ‘flying saucers’. This thesis caused no little chatter in the margins, a running conversation that consistently failed to grasp that understanding is radically temporal, historical. That is, Arnold’s report is a Ground Zero for the phenomenon, whose shock waves extend into the past and future. The flash of interest ignited by Arnold’s report and its journalistic and social echoes illuminates those earlier tales—about Ghost Rockets, Foo Fighters, Phantom Airships, or all that “damned data” recounted by Charles Fort—such that only then in retrospect do they come to be taken up into the phenomenon in general, as part of its [hi]story. This historiographical sophistication of Eghigian’s discourse was refreshing. The implied insight that, as Eghegian put it, experience always falls upon a “never barren imagination” enabled him to nimbly explain and dismantle the on-going facination for “ancient astronauts”.

Not only is the phenomenon historical but it is discursive, textual, so much so, part of its enduring appeal can be interpreted with concepts borrowed from literary criticism, a thesis dear to our hearts here at the Skunkworks. The drama of Disclosure is a melodrama, pitting heroic, selfless truthseekers and -tellers against evil manipulators intent on hiding the Truth, terrible or wonderful as it is. Moreover, its open-endedness gestures to its episodic seriality. Like any beloved television series, it has no preordained series finale, but the latest instalment can always end with the tantalizing words “Stay tuned for the next episode!”.

Finally, the phenomenon has always been political. Not in the facile party-political sense, but in the more radical way its being disputed cuts to the quick of questions of legitimacy, the ways that what counts as knowledge are constructed and defended in society, a topic taken up by Prof. Babette Babich. This is a matter that has been taken up here, too, and, of course, broadened and radicalized in ways passed over, if at least for the moment, by Eghigian’s address.

The next part (ii) of this second main division of my report can be read here.