Concerning critique and criticism

In a recent thread over at the UFO Updates Facebook page unwinding under a notice of Jacques Vallée’s and James Fox’s having recently appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast, I chimed in in harmony with one commenter who drew attention to the grave flaws with Vallée’s and Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky, adding Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity: The Best Kept Secret was as bad if not worse. Another commenter took exception, remarking: “Why build up when it’s so much easier to tear down?”

I found this comment discomfortingly unfair. Anyone who takes the time to read what I have written about Trinity in particular and Vallée’s work in general will, if they read attentively and with a modicum of understanding, percieve I am at all points charitable, at all points straining to present Vallée’s views as accurately and fairly as I can and, only once I have presented them as I understand them and as strongly as I can, do I then venture to either remark their implications or flaws in reasoning. I challenge anyone interested to find passages here at Skunkworks where I depart from this practice and to leave a comment specific to the substance of my discourse.

Some readers here have conflated criticism with critique, destructiveness with Destruktion (deconstruction). Criticism, at its most excessive, descends to fault-finding, and one unconcerned with grasping the criticized’s position accurately or at its most persuasive. Debunkery is an example of this kind of criticism, an approach I have defended, for example, Vallée’s writing against. Nevertheless, when Vallée’s writing has been less than accurate, I have criticized it on those grounds, but far more respectfully than others. But much more often what I engage in here at the Skunkworks is critique: the probing of the presuppositions and implications of an author’s position. A most recent example of the latter is my essaying a particular blind spot in Vallée’s Control System Hypthesis, especially its implications when read in combination with some passages from Passport to Magonia. Who sees this argument as merely destructive or dismissive fails to either grasp the argument or take it seriously.

And if there is anything at work here it’s my taking the authors I engage—Jacques Vallée, Diane Pasulka/Heath, Jeffrey Kripal, and George Hansen, among others (and, yes, even Avi Loeb…)—seriously. I challenge my critics, anyone who finds the thinking here at Skunkworks merely destructive, facilely dismissive, to find any other reader of these authors’ works as scrupulous or charitable. As I have observed, in some circles these authors can do no wrong; in others, no right. Neither stance does their conjectures, thinking, and labours justice. Only a painstaking, vigilant reading that is dialectical, i.e., that both discerns and uncovers the truth of their positions while at the same time the conditions, limits, and troubling implications of that truth can be said to do their work justice, to take it seriously.

As I responded to the commenter whose remark spurred this post: it’s not easy to tear down—something solidly built. Of course, such wanton demolition is not what we’re up to here at these Skunkworks…

Concerning traces, metamaterials and relics…

In the wake of the recently widely-publicized U.S. Navy encounters with Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) and History’s Unidentified:  Inside America’s UFO Investigation, comes the claim that To The Stars Academy (TTSA) has acquired samples of “metamaterials” “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin.”

Stories of such materials are, however, old news. Keith Basterfield has compiled A Preliminary  Catalogue of Alleged ‘Fragments’ Reportedly Associated with Sightings of  Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Where Analysis(es) was/were Conducted” of cases from 1897 to 2014. Reports of such fragments followed quickly on the heels of Kenneth Arnold’s eponymous sighting of “flying saucers” in 1947:  as will be well-known to the cognoscenti, Fred Crisman and Harold Dahl claimed to have witnessed six doughnut-shaped craft near Maury Island, Washington, three days before Arnold’s sighting, one of which ejected what appeared to be a white-hot, liquid metal. Since, witnesses have reported, for example, oily residues and powders and sometimes metal fragments, which were either ejected from the UFO or all that remained of it after it was seen to explode in midair. Traces of this sort were seized on for their forensic significance, as evidence of the sighting or landing and perhaps of some clue as to its nature.

The most famous of such cases, however, is doubtless Roswell, which, in this regard, added a layer to the merely forensic. Philip J. Corso’s The Day After Roswell sets out how materials recovered from the flying saucer that putatively crashed in July 1947 were studied and reverse-engineered into the components that made the modern, digital world possible, such as transistors and fibre-optic cables. TTSA’s ADAM Research Project (Acquisition and Data Analysis of Materials) was founded precisely to focus “on the exploitation of exotic materials for technological innovation”, namely those metamaterials TTSA has secured, “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin.”

It’s not my purpose here to judge the authenticity of TTSA’s claims (though they don’t look very compelling, if Robert Sheaffer’s points are valid…). Rather, I propose to reflect on the meaning such traces and fragments hold for the ufophilic. Diane Pasulka, in her American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology, argues UFO phenomena bear a strong resemblance to traditional religious experience, likening the Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila to an encounter experience and the fragment she, James, and Tyler find in the American southwest to “an artifact of hierophany” (50), “a manifestation of the sacred.” Of course, such analogies are hardly new. Jacques Vallee, more for stylistic effect than analysis, writes in the opening pages of his Revelations (1997):

Like any emerging movement, this one has its shrines. Examples include Kirtland Air Force Base, with its crypts of mystery, and Dulce, New Mexico, with its great temples to which spiritual energy can be directed by the faithful. Because this is a technocratic movement, its capitals are not called Saint Peter’s, Mecca, Jerusalem, or Salt Lake City. Their designations are code names, words of power:  Hangar 18, Majestic 12, and Area 51. (19)

And, from a less religious but no less metaphysical perspective, Rich Reynolds speculates “if we get our hands on a UFO – really get hold of one – I think that we could find out what our reality consists of, what actually our existence’s sine qua non may be.”

However, as I have argued since my earliest theoretical (as opposed to poetical) interventions into the ufulogical, theses such as Pasulka’s are misguided because ahistorical, as they ignore the radical break between premodern and modern culture:  the modern, if not postmodern, era is, in part, characterized by a loss of the metaphysical or supernatural. Where, for Catholics, for example, the Shroud of Turin is evidence of a supernatural intervention in human affairs, any part of a UFO, whether Extraterrestrial, Extradimensional, or Extratemporal (from another time if not place), let alone merely exotic and all-too-earthly, would evidence only another, however novel, phenomenon immanent to nature and its laws.

The advent of the Scientific Revolution, along with Kant’s Critical Philosophy, is a dimension of a process wherein and whereby any possible object, however strange or uncanny, is never more than natural. This development is evident, too, even in the ways that religion itself is studied, as a sociocultural phenomenon, as possessing some conceivable evolutionary advantage, as rooted in the human nervous system, or being an a priori potential for numinous experience, and so on, that is, as something merely human, all-too-human, no longer as evidence of  supernatural, miraculous incursions into our mundane realm. TTSA’s metamaterials, regardless of the wonder and awe they might inspire, are no sacred relics, as should be acutely apparent in how they are acquired only for the sake of their potential technological exploitation and attendant profits.