Pedantic Outrage or Sloppy Scholarship?

Anyone who has observed ants will have noticed that as the heat rises so does the feverishness of their activity. The reason is that the increase in ambient kinetic energy accelerates the biochemical reactions that drive their metabolisms, quite literally speeding them up. With Montreal in the grip of a heat wave and the Solstice just over the horizon, as it were, it would appear, despite being an endotherm, at least my ant-soul has succumbed to the climate.

A member of a Facebook group I belong to shared this quotation from the latest book by Jeffrey J. Kripal, The Flip:

kripal on kant

It could be I’m just picking a nit, but the cited passage above is consistent with those others about Kant in The Super Natural and Authors of the Impossible, and Kant’s philosophy seems to play a not unimportant role in Kripal’s more general views, given references to the philosopher in his books and this quotation from his latest. So, as a life-long student of philosophy in general, Kant, German Romanticism and Idealism in particular, and a painstaking scholar myself, passages like this one just get under my skin. In the first place, it’s just wrong:  space and time are the forms of intuition (or sensibility), one of the two ways human beings access possible objects of knowledge, the other being thought, to which the categories of the understanding pertain. Moreover, the experience posited as contradicting Kant, doesn’t:  the mother’s precognitive dream is still spatiotemporal, or it wouldn’t even make sense to call it precognitive; the dream’s manifest content merely steps out of the temporal order of waking life. It is, nevertheless, temporal, both in itself (dreams are a sequence, however disjunct, of images) and as an experience (dreams occur between falling asleep and waking).

Kripal can surely be forgiven for a single, passing, less-than-precise passage, especially in view of all the other wide-ranging, ground-breaking work he has achieved, which is far from insubstantial. I’m even tempted to give passages such as this a free pass, depending on the book’s intended audience:  a work for a more general readership is surely expected and allowed to be less technically specific than one intended for his learned peers. However, the mistake in the cited passage is an error and misrepresentation, not a simplification; it wouldn’t pass in an undergraduate philosophy class and so, by the same token, really shouldn’t appear in print, regardless of the intended reader.

Nevertheless, if The Super Natural is anything to go by, what Kripal terms “the phenomenological cut” does appear to play no slight role in his more general thinking, which would entail, at some point, his presenting a more explicit rehearsal of just what he makes of Kant’s ideas, let alone addressing how that “cut” has been explored and made both more profound and subtle, both by the thinkers immediately following Kant and those since, such as Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, among others. If Kripal really wants to bring Kant’s critical philosophy to bear in a sustainably persuasive (i.e., rigorous) manner, then such work really needs be in evidence. It may well be that in one of his many papers or singly-authored or co-edited books he has set forth his position in this regard; if an interested reader can point us to the relevant publication, it would be sincerely appreciated.

Unhappily, the passage from Kripal’s latest is really only an example of a more general tendency that’s seeped into my sensorium. I have been led to make the same complaint of two recent books concerning the religious dimension of the UFO phenomenon, David Halperin’s Intimate Alien and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic. I would underline, again, how much both books deserve and demand a more thoroughgoing treatment than a (for me) passing remark in a blog post, a task I’ve resolved to fulfill. That being said, in the case of Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books (as I have argued), cultural (read: commercial) pressures seem most to blame for any evident deviations from full-throttle scholarship. However, it is nevertheless the case that Heidegger (or, at least, the post-“turn” Heidegger) plays a role in American Cosmic no less important than that of Kant in Kripal’s thinking and seems to suffer from the same handling. Despite being addressed only in the book’s introduction, Heidegger’s thinking on technology and related topics seems (to me) to come up repeatedly in discussions of the book and in conversations with the author herself. Again, I may well be irritably picking another nit, but I’d wager I’m worrying more at a red thread in Pasulka’s argument more in the manner of Derrida’s writing at length on a footnote in Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Here, I merely cite my observations concerning the use of Heidegger in American Cosmic from an earlier post:  In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is:  a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin:  “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light [that that frame itself can become visible, an object for our thinking and, therefore, no longer fencing and controlling that thinking, invisible as the eye is to itself in seeing].

My points here are manifold. On the one hand, it is gratifying to see the German philosophical tradition being recognized for its relevance to these matters and being brought to bear. On another hand, I’m eager to see the full force of this tradition being applied, for which a deeper and more fluent understanding of that tradition is needed than I myself have witnessed. On the third hand, I look forward to following up on my intuition that Kant and Heidegger function as brîsures in Kripal’s and Pasulka’s thinking, respectively, upon which future critiques if not deconstructions (in the rigorous sense) might hinge.

 

 

When Synchronicity Fails

In a recent podcast, Diane W. Pasulka and host Ezra Klein discuss UFOs in the context of both Pasulka’s book American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) and recent developments, mainly the U.S. Navy videos made (more) famous by To The Stars Academy and the History series Unidentified:  Inside America’s UFO Investigation.

Among the many topics they explore are “book events” and the UFO and technology-as-religion. A book event is a synchronicitious discovery of a book that uncannily answers a need or question of the reader; said need can be answered, too, by other artifacts, as well, and even, imaginably, by a person:  one thinks of the proverb, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.”

Around the 1:17 mark, Pasulka begins to expound on how technology might be thought of in religious terms. Her words leave me with the impression that in the research for her book a “book event” that failed to materialize was one that might have presented her with any number of versions of the paper on the Raelian Movement International my collaborator Susan Palmer and I presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in 1999, published in the journal Nova Religio the following year, then reprinted in the religious studies textbook edited by Diana Tumminia Alien Worlds (2007), and, finally, included in an updated version in Hammer’s and Rothstein’s The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements (2012).

Our paper concludes:

…the advent of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ushers in today’s dominant discourse and practices within which religions orthodox and otherwise must define themselves. The present stands within the horizon of the death of God, understood as the domination of the assumption of the immanence of the world and the consequent disappearance of the meta-physical, the super-natural, and the supersensuous (at least overtly) or their fall into the merely paranormal. The paranormal or paraphysical is that realm of nature yet to be understood (and so ultimately controlled) by science. This assumption, that science will continue along the path of discovery, knowledge, and power, naturalizes or [reifies] science and technology. When our science and technology poison the biosphere, split the atom to release potentially species-suicidal energies, and manipulate the genetic code of living organisms, humanity has taken upon itself powers and potentialities hitherto exclusively the domain of superhuman deities. That science and technology, whose worldview determines how things are, bring us to an unprecedented impasse demands they must in some way be transcended (i.e., survived). The flying saucer appears within this horizon as a symbol of just such transcendence, promising that precisely the causes of our quandary will be our means of salvation.

Readers of the posts here at Skunkworks will recognize the nascent themes explored in that early paper cultured at this site from the start.

We find it gratifying our insights are making their way into the wider world, by whatever mysterious, obscure channels.

UFOs. Seriously.

In the past weeks, an opinion column and an interview both appeared on-line calling for UFOs to be taken more seriously, a sentiment I surely share, just not in the same way the authors likely intend or their readers understand.

, a Bloomberg opinion columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University, urges his readers to “Take Those UFO Sightings More Seriously”. The UFOs Cowen has in mind specifically are those in “leaked…videos taken by U.S. navy pilots” recently released by the U.S. Department of Defense. Cowen’s column is not so much a proposal for why or how to take UFO reports seriously as much as a reflection on “the contrast between those who see this as an important question and those who think the whole thing will turn out to be an error or some kind of optical illusion.”

For Cowen, those acquaintances of his game to speculate on the matter are of three kinds:  readers of science-fiction, those “used to thinking probabilistically”, and those not put off by ufomaniacs, with their “cultish devotion to the topic.” Cowen’s second and third types are merely rational. As he puts it, that a claim “‘is almost certainly nonsense,’ [is] still a case for further investigation, as long as the word ‘almost’ remains”; by the same token, logically, no topic is invalid on grounds of guilt by association alone.

Cowen’s own interest in UFOs stems from time he spent among Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico populated by the descendants of the Aztec empire, which famously “met its doom” at the hands of the technologically-superior conquistadors, from which Cowen would draw an historical lesson (at least, that “all of a sudden you are not in charge, and that the future will be permanently different from the past, [and] … that there is more to the world than what is right before your eyes”). With this confession, and that, as a young teenager his favorite authors were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, the cat is out of the bag.

On the one hand, most charitably, we might take Cowen to be arguing for no more than intellectual humility, the admission that our knowledge of nature is limited and that what we have yet to discover might well lead to radical change. On the other, his  example of the fateful encounter between Europeans and Turtle Islanders in this context might well be taken to imply his views are skewed (if not skewered) by the very same anthropocentrism that possesses those with a cultish devotion to the topic of UFOs. For the cognoscenti, the comparison between the arrival of Europeans on the shores of Turtle Island and that of no less “technologically-superior” extraterrestrials on earth is a cliché. More seriously, it uncritically (and unimaginatively) projects patterns of human ingenuity, behaviour, and history on extraterrestrial life, as if the tenuously contingent, nearly aleatoric vector of human cultural history (let alone “technology”) were somehow a transcendent, eternal Platonic Form shaping the destiny of all life in the universe. That is, the comparison assumes that technology is somehow natural to intelligent life and that it develops along fairly universal lines, such that one culture can unproblematically be said to be more or less technologically advanced than another. The same kind of thinking is expressed by the Raëlians, whose extraterrestrial Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us.

Even more suggestive is Cowen’s invocation of science fiction. Readers, if not fans, of the genre are amenable to imagining UFOs are instances of advanced technology, terrestrial or otherwise, not only because such projections are the very stuff of much of the genre, but also (and more interestingly) because most speculations about the nature of UFOs are themselves a kind of spontaneous science-fiction, as proponents of the Psychosocial Hypothesis (perhaps most notably Martin Kottmeyer) have long maintained. For those  who pursue this line of thought, science fiction provides the manifest content of UFO sightings and close encounter experiences, which, in turn, provides more material for science fiction. In a word, in this regard, the UFO is hyperreal.

Cowen is not alone in wanting UFOs to be taken seriously nor in standing on the same ideological ground that roots his contention. Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at Ohio State University, already well-known for his co-authored academic paper “Sovereignty and the UFO” and his recent TEDx talk, “Wanted:  A Science of UFOs”, in an interview with Vox voices ideas very much in harmony both with those who call for serious research into UFOs and those with their cultish devotion to the topic.

With regard to those recently-released U.S. Navy videos that prompt Cowen’s thoughts, Wendt’s probabilistic thinking is that odds are “51 to 49 in favor” of the videos’ picturing extraterrestrial craft; indeed, Wendt goes so far as to claim that “the Occam’s razor explanation is ETs.” Nor is Wendt shy about speculating about the visitors’ possible intentions (though it is surely uncertain just how serious to take his words, here): “They could just be intergalactic tourists. Maybe they’re looking for certain minerals. It could just be scientific curiosity.” A number of times in the interview, Wendt proposes that the visitors have been on earth a long time, as “there are medieval woodcuts that seem to show UFOs. There are UFO stories in the Bible, apparently, or at least stories that are interpreted that way.” Given they have been visible throughout human history, the question naturally arises as to why the aliens have neither kept their presence secret nor have made open contact: Wendt guesses “they have had a lot of experience with this in the past with civilizations at our stage.” The interview understandably explores the imaginable consequences of open contact, which, for Wendt, would be “the most important event in human history,” and culturally catastrophic, a scenario that, again, as with Cowen (and Stephen Hawking, who is remarked), is compared to the encounter of Europeans and Turtle Islanders, in Wendt’s case, the meeting of Montezuma and Cortes. Such a meeeting with our extraterrestrial visitors would be so destabilizing, because, for Wendt, “there’s a hubris in the scientific community, a belief that human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet, and it’s very hard to come to grips with the idea that if there are aliens here, they’re obviously much smarter than we are.”

Clearly, Wendt’s speculations are governed by the same set of assumptions about life, intelligence, and technology as Cowen’s and the ufomaniac’s. Wendt seems to take for granted that intelligence is unproblematically measurable and comparable, especially as it is expressed in technological terms (the aliens are “obviously much smarter than we are”); that technology, likewise, is measurable on a universally-applicable, sliding scale (the aliens have encountered “civilizations at our stage”); that even the intentions and values of intelligent, technological species are akin to our own (the aliens are tourists, or prospectors, or scientists). These hardly unproblematic assumptions are all the more ironic given that, for Wendt, the institution of the state is markedly “anthropocentric” and the scientific community is guilty of the hubris of believing “human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet.”

Wendt’s assumptions about technology and culture are strikingly ideological, projecting not only the narcissistic history of one culture on earth (the one that tells the story of the so-called “developed world”) onto that of all imaginable others, but going so far as to imagine prospecting and tourism as no less possibly “natural” to intelligent life. And his assumptions about intelligence are no less blinkered than those of the scientists he criticizes, for it is precisely some of those self-same scientists, whose research into animal and even plant consciousness, cognition, and intelligence, who have shattered the concept and scale of “intelligence” that allows Wendt to so casually utter judgements about human and alien intelligence. Indeed, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its relation to environmental degradation, arguably a more important event in human history then encountering some version of our First World selves (however much more “advanced”) would be the dethroning and decentering of human intelligence, ingenuity, and interests and the advent of a more sane, just, and sustainable biocentric culture and civilization, one capable of recognizing, yes, the intelligence (let alone intrinsic value) of the myriad of “alien”, i.e. nonhuman, forms of life with which we share this planet.

This critique should not be mistaken for a dismissal. Wendt is to be applauded at least for, as he says, having a plan, the project for “a ground-based network of surveillance stations” under the aegis of his nonprofit UFODATA. Indeed, almost since the advent of the modern era of the phenomenon, motivated by both concerns over national security and scientific curiosity, the reality and nature of the UFO has been subject to study with tools and methods both forensic and natural scientific. I would think any projected research along these lines would begin with a review of the available literature to discover just what had been attempted, what had been discovered (if anything), how or why not. In this regard, it strikes me as curious how efforts such as UFODATA never seem to remark these previous attempts, e.g., those of Harvey D. Rutledge’s Project Identification carried out in the early 1970s or the ongoing research into the Hessdalen Lights. In any event, such a “scientific ufology” is likely to remain with us as long as the enigma of the phenomenon and is hardly to be dismissed outright.

Of course, research of the kind Wendt proposes is hardly the only way to take UFOs seriously. The UFO undoubtedly holds a cultural place, one much more amenable to investigation. However, some more recent, humanistic approaches to the UFO have not proven as serious as they could or should be, either, given their authors’ scholarly background or the prestigious academic presses that issued their work. David J. Halperin’s Intimate Alien came out with Stanford University Press this year (2020) and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic appeared with Oxford University Press the year before. Both Halperin and Pasulka are religious studies scholars, Halperin retired from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Pasulka at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Both works (pretty much) bracket the question of the reality and nature of the UFO and their putative pilots, focussing more on the religious significance of the phenomenon and the stories about it. Both works absolutely warrant a more sustained and scrupulous reading than I venture here, but their curious lack of scholarly heft in essential respects can be sketched out briefly along with some speculations as to the editorial and cultural pressures I imagine that are to blame.

Halperin’s Intimate Alien (“The Hidden Story of the UFO”) takes up the countless stories about UFOs explicitly as a mythology, not in the sense of a system of outmoded, unfounded false beliefs, but in the sense of Carl Jung’s “modern myth of things seen in the sky”. UFOs and the reports of and rumours about them spring ultimately from the Collective Unconscious, the wellspring of all dream, myth, and art, and express something profoundly meaningful about the human condition. Indeed, Jung’s analytic psychology, with its ideas of the Collective Unconscious and Archetypes, is the theoretical foundation of Halperin’s book, yet nowhere does Halperin make anything more than the most passing, casual explanation of Jung’s theories or ideas nor a single reflection on let alone defense of their veracity.

American Cosmic, though more far-ranging in both its subject matter and field of scholarly reference, goes awry from the get-go. In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is:  a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin:  “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light. The reason I lay so much emphasis on this single sentence from the book’s preface is because the relation between technology and the sacred, how technology becomes an object revered and adored (if not fetishized) and the consequences of this relation for the significance of the UFO, is the red thread that runs through the argument of the entire book, arguably suturing its disparate chapters together. Thus, in both Intimate Alien and American Cosmic, essential, foundational concepts are presented in passing, as if self-evident, needing no explanation, analysis, reflection, or defense, which is neither serious in a scholarly sense nor ultimately intellectually satisfying.

Of course, it shouldn’t take too much reflection to see that I am demanding too much of these two books, because neither are, in a sense, serious, scholarly works, certainly not in the manner of Jung’s or Heidegger’s. Their style, biographical and conversational in the case of Intimate Alien, narrative and easy-going in that of American Cosmic, mark them as works by academics whose argument and presentation have been debased and polished respectively in equal measure for the sake of broader appeal (read: sales). Especially given that the genre of “UFO books” is a popular, not a specialized, one (in the way that Religious Studies books are), it’s not difficult to imagine the pressures increasingly cash-starved academic presses face (Stanford University Press recently barely avoided being shuttered altogether) to increase revenues, pressures passed on down to editors and their authors. These straits, combined with certain fashions coming to the fore in the 1980s, discernible in the light-hearted styles of literary theorist Terry Eagleton or, closer to home, Jodi Dean in Aliens in America, motivated, at the time, by the sense that academics might and should culture a readership wider than that of their specialized peers, along with a parallel loss of “deep literacy“, combine to shape Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books into what they are.

UFOs, whether as a maddeningly elusive physical phenomenon or a richly-suggestive sociocultural one, call to be taken seriously, more seriously than a for-profit intellectual marketplace in our increasingly semiliterate time allows. Regarded as a cultural phenomenon, as my ideological critiques of Cowen and Wendt suggest and as Pasulka intuits, the UFO is revelatory in its own, weird way, of the gravest problems facing human civilization and the obscured disorientiation at their root, disorentiations and confusions whose names are legion, not to be dispersed without an investment in an ascetic, grave intellectual labour equal to the challenge and even that meagre flicker of insight to be won.

[By curious synchronicity, the day I was finally able to get these thoughts more or less down, Scientific American posted an interview with Leslie Kean, “Should Scientists Take UFOs and Ghosts More Seriously?”. For the interviewer (John Horgan), the only worthwhile concern was whether UFOs are extraterrestrial. “What is the best single piece of evidence that UFOs have an extraterrestrial origin?” he asks. Seriously?]

Thomas Bullard reviews M. J. Banias’ The UFO People

Sometimes “the UFO community” reveals that some of its members are just shit-gibbons (which is an insult to gibbons):  point of evidence is the recent hacking of Diane W. Pasulka’s social media accounts and email (if I have the story straight).

Pasulka statement

What is wrong with some people?

But, then, the less socially-challenged among us (admittedly, a relative judgement) are edified by something good that comes out it all. To wit, this review of M. J. Banias’ The UFO People by no less than folklorist Thomas E. Bullard in the no less auspicious Journal for Scientific Exploration. Bullard devotes just over eight pages of cogent appreciation to Banias’ work, one whose concerns are shared here at Skunkworks.

Here’s to less shit-gibbonry and more serious, civil work!

 

New book from David Halperin–get it now!

Just got word today David Halperin has new book—Intimate Alien: the Hidden Story of the UFO—forthcoming from prestigious Stanford University Press, which describes it as follows:

UFOs are a myth, says David J. Halperin—but myths are real. The power and fascination of the UFO has nothing to do with space travel or life on other planets. It’s about us, our longings and terrors, especially the greatest terror of all: the end of our existence. This is a book about UFOs that goes beyond believing in them or debunking them, to a fresh understanding of what they tell us about ourselves as individuals, as a culture, as a species….

With Oxford University Press putting out D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic earlier this year, could something be afoot in at least cultural ufology?

If you order Intimate Alien before the end of September 2019, you get 30% off, too!

I doubt whatever Tom DeLonge & Co. have up their sleeve is half as interesting…

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.

Ufology’s Steadystate

Working randomly toward another review for Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf, I came across the following passage from Edward J. Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956):  the

“will to see” [UFOs] may have deeper roots, almost religious implications, for some people. Consciously or unconsciously, they want UFOs to be real and to come from outer space. These individuals, frightened perhaps by threats of atomic destruction, or less fears—who knows what—act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth. Instead, they seek salvation from outer space, on the forlorn premise that flying saucer men, by their very existence, are wiser and more advanced than we. Such people may reason that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival. (17)

Here, in a nutshell (as it were) Ruppelt plainly states many of the assumptions that guide beliefs about UFOs and extraterrestrials to this very day.

D. W. Pasulka’s recent American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) owes much of the splash it has made to her treating the fascination for the advanced technology the UFO-as-extraterrestrial-spacecraft represents as a religious phenomenon, yet, here, Ruppelt lays bare the “almost religious implications” the idea has. (And he is hardly the last:  Festinger et al. published their classic study of a flying saucer cult When Prophecy Fails the same year as Ruppelt’s no-less-classic Report, Jung published the first, German edition of his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies in 1958, and anthologies of articles exploring the religious dimension of UFOs and contact with their pilots have appeared since (e.g., The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis, 1995), UFO Religions (ed. Christopher Partridge, 2003), and Alien Worlds:  Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact (ed. Diana G. Tumminia, 2007)).

A famous (or infamous) intersection of American esoteric religious tendencies, the flying saucer, and anxiety over “threats of atomic destruction” are the Space Brothers of the Contactees. But Ruppelt’s point seems more complex. The Space Brothers, “wiser and more advanced than we”, land to warn us of the unknown dangers of atomic energy and weapons, yes. But, it is “by their very existence” that they “are wiser and more advanced than we” are. Here, he articulates a too-often unspoken assumption that “social and technical advancement” go hand in hand, a questionable thesis, as I’ve argued.

Even if we disentangle wisdom from technical ingenuity, Ruppelt observes a further belief, used today to justify the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and hopes that Disclosure will liberate world changing technologies, namely that “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival.” SETI researchers, like all who believe UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, project that trajectory of historical accidents that lead to the “advanced societies” of the earth onto the evolutionary vector of all life in the universe, as if all life universally follows a path from simplicity to complexity to human-like intelligence that as it grows in complexity necessarily develops a technology whose own development is always the same. That the hubristic anthropocentrism of this assumption persists unnoticed and unquestioned among so many of both casual and more dedicated or serious believers in extraterrestrial intelligence never ceases to appall me.

More gravely is how the UFO believers Ruppelt describes “act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth”, a sentiment echoed by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words twenty years after Ruppelt’s  (quoted by Pasulka to end her book):  “Only a god can save us.” Not twenty years after Heidegger’s words were finally published, Jacques Vallée in the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991) remarks the same situation and despairing response:

…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.

Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.

But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems:  those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)

The ironies of this despair are manifold. On the one hand, it is believed that technology alone can solve the problems its development has led to. On the other hand, these technological answers are not forthcoming from our technology. In either case, as Vallée worries, the desperate and credulous are subject to being manipulated by their belief that “only a god [or “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel”] can save us.”

What should be no less concerning for those interested in such matters is how these ideas Ruppelt describes over six decades ago persist in governing if not grounding what we imagine and think UFOs—and, more importantly, ourselves—to be.

 

What we don’t talk about when we talk about History’s Project Blue Book

As he wraps up his bracingly well-informed commentary on the season finale of History’s Project Blue Book, Kevin Randle remarks the vocal loathing some ufophiles have expressed for the series, confessing that he doesn’t “understand their hostility. Project Blue Book is not a documentary but a drama that has a historical background and a loose, very loose, interpretation of some of the sightings that are found in the Blue Book files.” For my part, I’ve made clear I find the series a lost opportunity, either to accurately represent (if dramatize) the story of Project Bluebook, which if done well would surely be engaging enough (if UFOs have any real and enduring mystery), or to create a radically novel twist on the mythology if not the phenomenon, whose merits could aspire to rank (as the show’s promotional material promises) with those of The X-Files. And, however much, as Randle cannily points out, History’s Project Blue Book is an overt fiction while the mainstay of many UFO websites and YouTube channels is to “put up UFO information that is totally bogus with no disclaimers whatsoever,” there are good grounds to be critical of how the series depicts the phenomenon, which, on closer inspection, entail even more curious and grave implications.

Randle is perhaps a little too sanguine about the solidity of the line that divides fact from fiction. As Robbie Graham and D. W. Pasulka have both recently argued, the fictional, televisual representation of the phenomenon insinuates itself in the memory in such a way that the fictional images replace factual reality. Though I find their arguments less than persuasive, it is the case that for “the general public” whose curiosity is not as invested as that of the researcher’s such a confusion arguably obtains. A mainstay example in discussions about false memories is an experiment

wherein participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with an impossible character (e.g., Bugs Bunny). Again, relative to controls, the ad increased confidence that they personally had shaken hands with the impossible character as a child at a Disney resort.

It is precisely through the lack of interest in a subject matter that errors and confusions of this sort filter in. More seriously, though, how events are represented is no small matter for concern. The resistance to the Vietnam War has been attributed in part to how footage of its violence appeared in an unprecedented way on national television. The lesson learned from the influence of this relatively new medium led to such a tightly-controlled, sanitized spin on reporting the First Gulf War that it inspired French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to pen several articles collected in a hyperbolically titled volume The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). Such anxious considerations are now de rigueur in the age of social media and their volatile, political exploitation.

While Randle is nonplussed over the misrepresentation of the phenomenon, he has expressed in a number of posts reviewing the series, as a veteran and so as someone who knows, his dissatisfaction with how “military customs and courtesies” and procedures are mishandled. What goes unremarked, however, both by Randle and critics of the series, are the intertwined threads of experimentation on military personnel and what Donald Keyhoe called “the flying saucer conspiracy”, official secrecy around and the dispersal of a misinformation screen about the phenomenon. Both themes are arguably more serious in their implications than the question as to whether “the flying saucers are real.”

To take up the latter topic first: it is perhaps sychronicitious that the CIA and the flying saucer both make their respective official appearances in 1947. Since, the American national security state has only grown (some would say “metastasized”). By 1964, Wise and Ross coin the term “the invisible government,” an idea since expanded if not always refined into “the shadow government” and most recently “the deep state.” Parallel to and sometimes twisted into such official state secrecy are accusations of an official cover-up of what military and government officials know to be true about the UFO, beginning with Keyhoe’s books in the 1950s and becoming especially gnarled and knotted in the 1980s and 90s with the appearance of the MJ-12 documents and the confluence of ufology with New World Order conspiracism, most notably in Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse (1991). One might say the relation was made canonical, for the ufophilic at least, by Richard Dolan in his two-volume study UFOs and the National Security State 1941-1973 and 1973-1991, published in 2002 and 2009 respectively, and officially certified with the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure at the National Press Club in April, 2013.

That the conspiracist aspect of the series is passed over in silence in 2019 is itself remarkable. First, this silence is an index of how normalized, how unremarkable, the very idea has become, not only for the ufophilic (long aware of the idea) but for the general public, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and 9/11. Second, the unconscious acceptance of the motif is curious at a time when conspiracism has returned with a vengeance in the form of the Q Anon conspiracy theory. Credence in the “theory” has only grown and spread since its appearance, with vocal supporters making themselves visible at Trump rallies. Others have committed crimes inspired by Q’s “drops.” Since, the theory has infiltrated the EU and is a source of misinformation and weapon for creating dissent in its populist-beset democracies. The series repeats and so reinforces the idea of a not necessarily benevolent “deep state”, echoing sentiments with the potential to inspire grave actions outside its merely dramatic, fictional world

An even graver motif in the series is that concerning human experimentation, for the moment at least, on military personnel. In Episode 4, “Operation Paperclip”, a hapless if resisting test pilot is strapped into the cockpit of a flying saucer prototype developed by Werner von Braun, which promptly disappears, taking the pilot to who-knows-where or when. In Episode 9, “War Games”, soldiers are unknowingly exposed to a chemical agent that causes irrational violence among them, and it is revealed that Generals Valentine and Harding have subjected pilots who’ve encountered Foo Fighters or UFOs to a kind of psychic driving procedure that echoes the infamous MK-Ultra program. This latter episode, especially, echoes the real-world cases where American military personnel have been exposed to chemical agents and psychoactive drugs. The public awareness of such practices underwrote anxieties about Gulf War Syndrome, conspiracy theories about Timothy McVeigh, and a central motif of The X-Files.

Experimentation on unwitting or unwilling human subjects touches on something essential to modernity, the perversion of rationality to identity thinking and instrumental reason. This latter is characteristic of both technology and capitalism, for whom the world is reduced to a warehouse of resources for exploitation and profit. Such a reduction is especially egregious in the case of living systems and organisms. Most immediately, such thinking is an important cause of the environmental crisis. In the case of human beings, if not nonhuman animals, instrumental thinking is essentially immoral, as it treats others as means rather than ends in themselves. When the Hynek and Quinn characters meet von Braun in Episode 4, they do not hesitate to openly express their disgust, an ironic reaction for viewers aware of Nazi human experimentation (among other atrocities, e.g., using the remains of concentration camp victims as raw materials) who can connect these scenes to the motif of human experimentation that has run through the series from almost its beginning if not to the very character of capitalist-technological society at large.

Critics of how History’s Project Blue Book depicts the history of the phenomenon have more warrant for their dissatisfaction than a mere judgement of taste, as its dramatizations potentially become the history of the UFO for the casually (un)concerned viewer and, worse, to my mind, reinforce clichés about the phenomenon that strip it of its real, unnerving mystery and keep it from being taken seriously. More curiously though is the way its reception reveals what its viewers and critics if not society at large take for granted, namely a byzantine, uncontrollable, and potentially malevolent national security apparatus and, worse, a blasé acceptance of the reduction of everything to a means to an end as business as usual.

 

 

 

 

“What we have here is a failure of imagination….”

Sometimes, like Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures, I roll my eyes over the ufological, which seems to perennially re-invent the wheel, only to spin it in the same, well-worn rut.

Paul Seaburn at Mysterious Universe informs us of a new book Die Gesellschaft der Außerirdischen: Einführung in Die Exosoziologie (The Society of Extraterrestrials:  Introduction to Exosociology) by scholars Michael Schetsche and his research assistant Andreas Anton at the Institute for Sociology of the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, Germany.  Schetsche and Anton essay three scenarios of human contact with an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization:  remote (via some medium of communication), indirect (through the discovery of an artifact of undeniable alien manufacture), or direct (in the form of a piloted or unpiloted alien spaceship). The first scenario is the goal of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI); the second and third are believed by some to have already happened, not only by the adherents of Exopolitics and the Disclosure movement but even (it would seem) by religious studies scholar D.W. Pasulka in her American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, wherein an inexplicably “alien” artifact plays an important role. At any rate, Schetsche and Anton contend that an instance of alien technology could pose a material threat (imagine small children playing with a hand grenade) or inspire conflict between nations eager to secure and exploit what they can learn from it. The third scenario is compared to the contact with and colonizations of the Americas and Africa by technologically superior Europeans; even if the extraterrestrials don’t conquer or colonize the earth, the social repercussions of such contact might incite social chaos. Says Schetsche, “Even if people do not kill each other, direct contact can destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries.”

It’s getting to be a tiresome exercise explaining just how dreary and somnambulent such speculations are. In general, they develop a deeply questionable anthropocentrism that merely projects features of human society on to imagined extraterrestrial societies. Aside from perversely restricting “intelligence” to the Promethean, technoscientific version characteristic of one chance vector of one part of human history, it assumes an immediate recognition between Us and Them. Even the writers of Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home had more imagination, probing the possibility that intelligent life on and off the earth is not restricted to only those “made in God’s own image.”

The second scenario, the discovery of an alien artifact, is, by extension, no less problematic. First, it is assumed we could in fact recognize an alien artifact as such. The recent controversy over the possible artificial, extraterrestrial origins of ‘Oumuamua among institutional researchers or the longstanding if less respectable speculations that one or more moons in the solar system (including the Earth’s) may be artificial illustrate the problem. More problematically, any piece of technology sufficiently within our own relatively primitive, earthbound purview would be unlikely to belong to a spacefaring civilization, unless technology-as-such is fairly uniform throughout the universe and the discovery of warpdrive is right around the corner, or we have already back engineered the propulsion systems of crashed flying saucers or been taught their principles and construction by their manufacturers as part of an agreement, Faustian or otherwise, an arrangement within the parameters of Schetsche’s and Anton’s speculations but not likely one they would ascribe to.

The third scenario is also all-too-recognizable among the cognoscenti. Offhand I can’t recall the earliest instance of Europeans-meet-the-Native-Americans analogy, but the prediction that direct contact would “destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries” has a history that runs from the earliest, anxious investigations into the phenomenon by the United States Air Force to the most recent “After Disclosure” writings of Richard Dolan. It is curious that sociologists don’t explore the fact that for decades more than half of people in the developed world already believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial, intelligent life and its either having already contacted us or the possibility of such contact. Indeed, the default understanding of ‘UFO’ is “alien spaceship”. That the reality of the third scenario is in a sense already accepted, either as an all-too-mundane possibility or as a real if suppressed reality for believers, witnesses, or experiencers surely calls for sociological scrutiny, especially since the undeniably real social, economic, political, and religious disruptions we in fact suffer seem utterly unrelated to exosociological events.

Of greater sociological import are the reasons why books like Schetsche’s and Anton’s obsessively repeat the anthropocentrisms outlined above, while ignoring the very real “social, economic, political, and religious” significance, effects and implications of this reflex and its projections. As Pasulka makes repeatedly clear in her recent study, regardless of whether “UFOs are real” the belief they are or may be has real world effects.

Skunkworks: First Orbit

Skunkworks has been at it a year now.

The initial impulse behind this blog was to keep me honest. I’ve been at work  (mainly on various drawing boards) on a long poem, whose working title is Orthoteny, that aspires to do for the UFO mythology what Ovid’s Metamorphoses did for classical mythology. And though I’ve test-flown various prototypes—poems such as “Flying Saucers”, “Will o’ the Wisp”, “Q’ Reveals the Real Secret Space Program”, and “Magonian Latitudes” and the sequence On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery—the work on Orthoteny had stalled, and when UFO Conjectures publicized my chapbook on the Phantom Airship Mystery, I imagined that developing the work in public would be a way of holding myself accountable.

One way of getting toward the poem is to imagine the countless stories around the UFO as constituting a “modern myth of things seen in the sky” and to read it as such. Many of the posts at Skunkworks have been just that, interpretations of various aspects of the myth as it has been developed since 1947. Complementing this hermeneutic labour has been reading classics of the canon to grasp their respective contributions to the myth and the poetic resonances within and between them.

But flying a parallel path to my poetic endeavors has been a cultural critical approach to the phenomenon. Already in 2000 with my collaborator Susan Palmer I published a study of the Raelian Movement International “Presumed Immanent” that argued that the UFO mythology was intimately bound up with and revelatory of the technoscientific spirit of modernity; that, like a collective dream, it expressed the anxieties and aspirations of the “advanced” societies and, at the same time, provided leverage for an ideological critique of that spirit; that, the UFO, like a funhouse mirror, reflected the truth of modernity back to it, but in a distorted form. Many of the posts here this past year have explored this thesis from various angles and in greater detail.

And despite being avowedly concerned exclusively with the meaning rather than the being, nature or truth of the phenomenon, with what I have called “the UFO Effect”, as any assiduous student of deconstruction will know, such distinctions, by their very separating two fields, unify as much as divide. For this reason, I have, at times, touched on matters more properly ufological, despite always attempting to steer back into the phenomenological lane.

On the immediate horizon is an omnibus review of three books that seek to bring ufology into the Twenty-first century, reviews of two books by religious studies scholars that touch on two different aspects of the phenomenon (one of which is D.W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic), and further entries in the series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”. On the drawing board are more than a dozen other posts-in-the-working on the weaponization of the myth, various aspects of its sociopolitical implications, as well as some others on the peculiar logic of ufology. I hope too to address some English-language poetry about UFOs as a way of mapping what in fact has been accomplished in this direction. And of course given the nature of the phenomenon and the mill of rumour and speculation it drives I’ll be always on the lookout for synchronicitious inspirations for developments unimagined by my present philosophy to address.

To this first year’s readers: thank you for your interest and your occasional interventions. And special gratitude is extended on this occasion to Rich Reynolds for outing my ufological predilections a year ago.

Back to the Skunkworks!